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Strange Fruit
Director: Joel Katz

Lyrics to “Strange Fruit,” by Lewis Allan

Southern trees bear strange fruit
Blood on the leaves
Blood at the root
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees

Pastoral scene of the gallant south
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth
The scent of magnolia sweet and fresh
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh
Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck
For the rain to gather
For the wind to suck
For the sun to rot
For the tree to drop
Here is a strange and bitter crop

Milt Gabler, of Commodore Records, recorded “Strange Fruit” when Columbia Records would not. “Strange Fruit” was a controversial song. Look at those lyrics. Radio stations didn’t want to play it. Joel Katz’s documentary, Strange Fruit, is both a history of the song and lynching in America, and a bio of Lewis Allan, the man who wrote these haunting lines.

The origins of “Strange Fruit” have been somewhat clouded. Billie Holiday, the singer most identified with “Strange Fruit,” strongly implied in her biography, Lady Sings The Blues, that she wrote the music and that Allan wrote the lyrics specifically for her. Allan, whose real name was Abel Meeropol, was a New York City schoolteacher who actually wrote the lyrics out of his own sense of horror. In interviews with his sons and former colleagues, we learn that most of his songs were rather humorous, and that he had a knack for dashing off ditties and jingles such as the one used as a recruitment song for the Teachers’ Union. We also learn the extent of his progressive activism. The Meeropols adopted two orphaned boys. Their parents: Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. Eventually this activism led by Meeropol being brought before—you guessed it—the House Un-American Activities Committee, which was hunting Reds in the Teachers’ Union.

Strange Fruit-the-movie is another case of an interesting topic rendered in not particularly interesting filmmaking. A lot of documentaries suffer from this malady, a lot of documentaries don’t get watched, and you bet your ass there’s a connection there. This is straight-ahead non-fiction, with talking-head interviews of family, friends, and commentators (Abby Lincoln, Amiri Baraka) and shots where the camera moves slowly across old black-and-white photos and newspaper clippings while we listen to the jazzy strains of “Strange Fruit.” A highlight is 1958 BBC footage of Holiday performing the song. A higher light is the closing performance of “Strange Fruit” by Cassandra Wilson. I pretty much thought Billie owned this song, but after hearing Cassandra… Nevertheless, the movie has a certain educational television feel to it, so it’s no surprise that it will be airing soon (April 8) on PBS’s “Independent Lens.” While by no means a boring 57 minutes—how to say this?—Strange Fruit is packed with the RDA of essential vitamins and minerals, but it ain’t exactly tasty.


Only The Strong Survive
Director: Chris Hegedus, DA Pennebaker

Sweet soul music. There’ve been more cameras trained on classic soul performers in the last three years than you can shake a stick at. Only The Strong Survive is the corporate entry in this genre, helmed by widely admired documentarians Chris Hegedus and DA Pennebaker for Miramax. It is hard to screw up with such rich subject matter, and you’ll be glad to know that the filmmakers don’t, though neither do they provide as rich a treatment as last year’s Standing In The Shadows Of Motown.

They sure tried, though. Their mistake was attempting to create the same sort of root-for-these-underdogs vibe. Only The Strong Survive follows legendary artists (Sam Moore of Sam & Dave, Rufus Thomas, Carla Thomas, Mary Wilson, Wilson Pickett, Ann Peebles, Jerry Butler, the Chi-Lites, Isaac Hayes) as they tour in cut-rate nostalgia shows or perform in small hometown venues, cutting interviews between present and past performance glory. These are folks who’ve been heard of. They may have lost fame, but, unlike The Funk Brothers, they had it to lose.

Nevertheless, if this music was the wallpaper of your young life, you’ll have a good time. These folks can still dish out the mighty funk they were known for, and some have aged like fine wine. Ann Peebles’ performance was electrifying stuff. But I’m thinking, “Why did this need to be a movie?” It could easily have been a radio show instead or a box set CD that I’d lay the money down for. There’s much to hear, but not a lot to see. The only thing about it that screamed “visual necessity” is that these folks are getting along in years and one wants a document for posterity.


156 Rivington
Director: Andrea Meller

For a movie about the home of a hotbed of creativity and cutting-edge artistry, 156 Rivington is awfully staid. It’s as if the filmmaker thought too much counterculture would scare the straights. I’m making this sound like a bad movie, when it’s not. It’s just not in keeping with what one expects from this source. This source is ABC No Rio, a legendary NYC artists collective. ABC No Rio grew out of “The Real Estate Show,” a 1980 art show produced in a building the artists squatted in. 156 Rivington is very much a safe first documentary. It relies on all the stock documentary features—interviews, old photos, titles, more interviews—that can make it dangerous for the lights to go down on a sleep-challenged audience. The good news is that the subject matter is worth watching and the transitions are outstanding, colorful, flowing animations.

The organization, which got its start in an abandoned building in the Lower East Side faced the ultimate irony recently—possible eviction. The problem, of course, was gentrification. As one of ABC No Rio’s long-time participants said, “Our presence in the neighborhood made other white folks feel it was safe” to come down here. Unlikely as it seems, ABC No Rio—which has evolved from visual art space to include performance and film/new media to DIY punk shows to activists organizations—was the thin edge of the gentrification wedge. As the neighborhood’s properties became more desirable, 156 Rivington became a potentially profitable address. Only the intervention of a community-minded, non-confrontational housing commissioner led to the preservation of ABC No Rio in the changed community.

Throughout its life, ABC No Rio has intended to be a good neighbor in the community, though various current and former members suggest that they might have done a better job at outreach. 156 Rivington ends rather abruptly, but is a decent history of an organization and a document of an evolving community.


A Mighty Wind
Director: Christopher Guest

Guest gives ’60s folksingers the Spinal Tap treatment, with mixed results. Never a provider of uproarious, belly laugh humor, Guest brings another sociological study, this one not quite as smartly observed as Best In Show. The funniest bits are probably the songs themselves, which (mostly) fall just inside outright parody of the earnest anthems of yore. The action centers around a memorial concert honoring a producer of folk albums, and the three folk groups—The Folksmen, Mitch & Mickey, and The New Main Street Singers—that reunite for the event. Some stuff, like the bits about what the various persons are into off-stage, stretch too far for what’s just too easy to make fun of. Funniest guys around were probably Ed Begley Jr., as a producer and wannabe Jew, and the crazed Fred Willard. For Guest fans.


Bubba Ho-Tep
Director: Don Coscarelli

Imagine if you will, that Elvis lives. Imagine also that JFK lives. Now imagine that they are both senior citizens in a slightly low-rent nursing home in East Texas, Elvis has weeping sores on his dick, and JFK is black. Oh yeah, and a resurrected mummy is chasing their asses.

Now I happen to think that’s all a movie-going citizen needs to know to start motivating toward the nearest theater (where, sadly you will not yet find Bubba Ho-Tep), but I understand that others may need more. Think of this, then, as a geriatric The Lost Boys, only with real famous boys banding together to kick a supernatural creature’s nasty behind. Don Coscarelli took Joe Lansdale’s fantastic short story, slapped it onto paper, cast Ossie Davis and Bruce Campbell, and let the good times roll. This was a SXSW midnight movie, which was probably the ideal audience for it. And let me just say that Bruce Campbell gave a career performance here. Despite some logical flaws, like JFK being in a wheelchair in one scene after having been spryly on his feet earlier, it’s entertaining. It was the must-see of SXSW, and with very good reason. Demand it at your local cineplex.


Tom Dowd & The Language Of Music
Director: Mark Moormann

Who is Tom Dowd? Get any older rock or jazz recording you’ve got, turn it over, and look in the credits. This legendary recording engineer died in October 2002, but in his storied career, he helped build Atlantic Records and worked with everyone from Charlie Parker and Lester Young to Cream to The Allman Brothers Band to Aretha Franklin. He was one of the pioneers of multi-track recording and mixing. And he didn’t just engineer: He was musically gifted enough that artists recognized his talents and used his suggestions (the off-the-beat drum start on Cream’s “Sunshine Of Your Love,” for example). Cameraman Mark Moormann spent the seven years and a considerable portion of his own funds to make Tom Dowd, a movie as fun to look at as it is to listen to. Though there are some talking heads, Moormann leavens the interviews with some black-and-white recreations, some archival stuff, and shots that have that music-video look and feel. But most of the talk is from Dowd himself, whose life was pretty darned interesting. After getting a start in the record biz as a kid, his career derailed while he studied physics in college, and then worked on the Manhattan Project, eventually traveling to Bikini Atoll to observe a test. This is a good documentary, of a piece with the Jerry Wexler movie, Immaculate Funk, that played SXSW a year or two ago. See it.


My Flesh And Blood
Director: Jonathan Karsh

Karsh spent a year in the Tom household, where industrial-strength mom, Susan Tom, cares for her 13 children, most of whom are handicapped and most of whom she adopted. My Flesh And Blood was both amazing and uncomfortable to watch. This is a household filled with a great deal of stress. Some of Tom’s kids have handicaps that barely trouble their daily lives. Two of her daughters are legless, cheerful, and well-adjusted. One daughter’s face is disfigured from having been badly burned as an infant. But one son suffers from a form of cancer that causes painful wounds all over his body and will ultimately kill him, and another son has both cystic fibrosis and severe emotional disturbances. And Tom’s biological daughter, the oldest of the brood, is about to melt down under the demands of home life, a supermarket job, and the transition to being a college student.

It feels really invasive to be a fly on the Toms’ wall, partly because the subjects here are children, but also partly because Susan  is an ambiguous presence. Susan’s parents come for a visit and are clearly overwhelmed in no time flat. They speak of Susan’s need to give as a trait they observed in her youth. It’s clear that Susan is not only performing a heroic service, she loves caring for these kids. But as an outsider viewing the household, it also seems that Susan’s need to be needed overrules her responsibility to provide the best childhood she can for her kids, especially her eldest, whose life has both suffered and been enriched by so very many, very needy siblings. Not quite to hymn of praise you thought it would be at first, My Flesh And Blood is a compelling domestic train wreck.


Where’s The Party, Yaar?
Director: Benny Mathews

Where’s The Party, Yaar? is silly fun, being yet another FOB (fresh off the boat) Indian comedy, like this year’s The Guru. Hari leaves India to attend grad school in Houston, living with his auntie and uncle and their thoroughly Americanized sons. He quickly latches onto his hep cousin Mo, who’s constantly trying to scrape Hari and his downhome ways off his shoes. Both young men pursue success in love, and of course each learns something from the other, leading to the requisite happy ending. Mathews exploits inter-ethnic issues of American Desis while providing cheap laughs about Indian restaurants, adopters of black culture, astrologers, and over-protective daddies. Nothing wrong with the cheap laughs, especially when we also get singing and dancing (hip hop).


Documentary Shorts Program 1

Super-8 Mom
Cheap-out short by David Ellsworth, wherein we hear him and his mother discuss her movie-making and his no-good father, while we get to watch her old footage, possibly as a form of family therapy. The usual shots of kids frolicking at the beach, with nothing to elevate it above anyone’s old home movies.

Low Light
Jen White films in a recording studio with the band 54 Seconds. Lots of slo-mo and blurring. The vaguely hypnotic music and yes, low light, make this lulling film dangerous to watch when you’re tired.

The Lancebian
Mocha Jean Herrup is The Lancebian, a lesbian apparently separated at birth from Lance Bass. In this hilarious performative documentary, director Jenn Garrison follows The Lancebian as she gets ready for her swinging birthday party. Find and watch this.Growin’ A Beard

Shamrock, Texas is on old Route 66. Director Mike Woolf followed four contenders in Shamrock’s annual Donegal beard contest. Three are sons of Shamrock, whose past beards have taken prizes, but the fourth is an extremely hirsute up-and-comer from Austin. Contenders begin growing their facial hair on New Year’s Day; the judging is held on St. Patrick’s Day. See hilarious tips on beard-growing and track the week-by-week progress of facial hair! Like last year’s Spellbound in its humorously suspenseful storytelling, Growin’ A Beard is a real winner. Added bonus: Music by The Gourds.


Documentary Shorts Program 2

The Ocularist
A guy makes glass eyes for patients who need them. The Ocularist is a good-looking movie, full of crystal-sharp images. Director Vance Malone shows the ocularist talking about and performing his craft. His narration is laid over electronica and images that wink in and out as the guy crafts the false eyes. There are skip-frames and black frames intermittently. This is a very interesting visual presentation for a movie about eyes that do not see.

Herb Alpert: Music For Your Eyes
Tom Neff’s short is very colorful, as are Alpert’s paintings, but very dull. You’ll see lots of Alpert’s painting and sculpture, while a mellow jazz score contrasts with the artwork. Too long. It’s putting me to sleep.

Director Tamara Tracz’s grandmother, Riva, is a cheery-looking woman who’s life sounds hellish in the telling. We see and hear Riva talking to her granddaughter, but their conversation is interspersed with Tracz’s comments on Riva’s travels: from Belarus for Palestine, where she was arrested, beaten, and tortured for being a Commie; to imprisonment in Bethlehem; to exile to Poland; a return to Belarus; flight to Siberia during WWII and return to Wroclaw after WWII; to Israel, where she worked in education and wrote a classic kids’ book. It’s excellent.

What makes nutria worthy of their own movie? There are millions of ’em in Louisiana, apparently undermining the state’s topsoil by eating every growing green thing they can get into their mouths. Ted Gesing traces the status of nutria in these United States, from the legend that they were introduced by the heir to the Tabasco fortune, to their past importance in the fur trade, to their new future as the other “other white meat.” Nutria recipes and Ken Nordone nutria word jazz round out an pretty funny show.

Guys And Dolls
I almost passed out when Rock K. Schroeter’s short about male doll collectors unspooled. It could’ve been the best movie ever made, but dolls are just too fucking creepy to look at.

Miss Alabama Nursing Home
Anne Paas’s Great-aunt Helen competed in a beauty pageant for Alabama nursing home residents. It was interesting to observe the somewhat disrespectful way this elderly woman was coached for pageant success by the home’s activities director, an offensively cheerful and brisk woman many years her junior. It was also interesting to note the gleam in the old lady’s eye as she girded for a competition she clearly looked forward to. Don’t expect much of a comment on the issue of beauty pageants. This is about Aunt Helen and keeping an interest in life as a nursing home resident.


Animated Shorts Program (selected)

Hike Hike Hike
Anouck Iyer’s black-and-white drawings of feeding the dogs and going dog-sledding are beautiful.

Intelligent Life
Director Jeff Spoonhower’s computer animation was well-suited to his humorous story of a talent show.

Scott Peterson’s Sprout is one of an avalanche of professionally genericized big-biz animation projects, good only in that it produced a neat font for its credits.

Damian Griffin’s story of a family of worms whose placid domestic existence in an apple is threatened is full of bright colors and good humor, and a story with a resourceful solution.

The Box Man
Nirvan Mullick’s film, based on a novel by Kobo Abe, is full of geometrics. The story’s a big opaque but the animation is uniformly excellent. Check out the shadows from the blinds!

The Stone Of Folly
Inspired by Hieronymus Bosch’s “The Cure For Folly,” Jesse Rosensweet begins with a medieval painting of an operation, then moves to a surgery filled with bizarre devices. A surgeon removes a stone from the head of his patient, but the stone gets crushed into several small chips, which are fed to infants.

Hypnotic music, and an oddly beautiful combination of 2D and 3D animation. A petrified-wood-looking solitary, while out in his boat, encounters a race of stiltwalkers who could have stepped from one of his drawings. He samples their life, becoming 2D, then returns to his own 3D existence. Years later, as a frail and older man, he contemplates this experience, then sees that the stiltwalkers have come for him. He dies and becomes one of them. The stiltwalkers have a kind of Midas touch: items touched by them become 2D and then crumble into dust. Sjaak Meilink made the loveliest film I saw at the festival.


Experimental Shorts Program (selected)

Wonder Pain
Camera-free filmmaking from Devon Damonte!

Mark Set Burn
I came in partway through Christine Khalafian’s film, which has all the expected stereotypical weird sound effects, droning music, and images of echt experimental film. I could have forecast this one. So why am I a devotee of experimental film? Why listen to free form jazz? It’s your best chance to find something that’ll blow your mind. This one isn’t it, but the quest continues.


Mike Doughty

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