Silverdocs Catch-Up: Poets, Politics, And George Plimpton As Himself
There comes a point in my week at Silverdocs where I want to give everything I've seen the individual, loving attention it deserves. I want to hug all these movies, because they all deserve it — I've had exceptionally good luck this year and enjoyed almost everything.
But I've also seen 13 features already, and I have not had time to write up 13 features while also seeing 13 features.
So this is the point where we catch up by giving short (but enthusiastic!) shrift to seven films I will hope to return to if and when they show up in theaters or on Netflix. (In addition to the ones I have already written about this week, there are two that I have pieces in process about — Virgin Tales and The Ambassador — so we'll leave those out.) Without further ado, here we go.
Planet Of Snail follows deaf and blind Korean poet Young-Chan and his wife Soon-Ho. In addition to being his wife, she's also his way of getting around in the world, and as the film demonstrates, they've learned to function so much as a single force that they both seem completely at sea when they spend time apart. There's a remarkable sequence in which they spend a long chunk of a day changing a single ring-shaped light bulb, because he's the only one tall enough to reach it (she has a spinal disability and is very small), and she's the only one who can see what he's doing. It's a movie that would drive a lot of people crazy because it's so meditative and because the filmmakers often let you gradually figure out what's going on rather than providing much information explicitly. But if you settle and adapt to the rhythm of it, it's very beautiful.
In Sun Kissed, a Navajo family cares for their daughter, who has a rare degenerative genetic condition called XP, which makes any exposure to sunlight fatal. It's a disorder to which they've already lost a son. The mom realizes that there are a disproportionate number of XP families on the reservation and sets out to figure out why the disorder would be so much more prevalent there than elsewhere. In all honesty, it's very easy for documentaries about illnesses to seem terribly maudlin, particularly ones about children. But there's a rawness to the way this particular family deals with their grief and frustration, and to the way Navajo culture intersects with the medical mystery, that keeps it from seeming like it's all just an exercise in making you cry. (With that said: You will probably cry.)
How To Survive A Plague documents AIDS activism in the late 1980s and early 1990s, specifically following ACT UP New York, and looks at the role of that activism — particularly by patients — in ultimately helping to develop the drugs that now make the disease survivable for many years in people who can afford and access those drugs. Put together largely from archival footage stitched together with interviews, it's stunning as a historical piece, but it's also very cannily constructed from a narrative viewpoint to give maximum impact to the moment where the drug discoveries come to pass.
Without taking the gut-punch out of the experience for those of you who will one day see it (and it's scheduled for a theatrical release in September), I'll just say that director David France made some sacrifices in what he did and didn't use in the early parts of the film in order to try to adequately convey to the audience what these drugs meant to the population at the time. It's an excellent film, and it shows again this Sunday night, so if you're in the D.C. area, I strongly recommend it.
Director Debbie Lum set out to make a film about the general phenomenon of white men who are obsessed with dating Asian women. But, as sometimes happens, she was sucked into an individual story that became Seeking Asian Female, in which an American man named Steven brings a Chinese woman named Sandy (not her original Chinese name, as you can probably guess) to the states to marry him. She speaks no English; he speaks no Chinese.
Lum gets to know the couple and gradually finds herself stuck in the middle of their troubled relationship as a confidante and translator, until she eventually starts wondering whether she's gotten too involved. (She has.) Lum's narration lets her down at times; she has a bit of a tendency to speak in neatly in cliches. But the story of the marriage is strange and engrossing, and Steven and especially Sandy are complicated, persistently surprising people.
I was concerned about Only The Young, which was promoted as being about a "chaste love triangle" among skateboard-obsessed teenagers in Santa Clarita, California. I had a not-very-happy experience last year with Dragonslayer, a film about a California skate phenom that didn't grab me nearly as much as it did other people, and I wasn't sure I was up for another tour of dry swimming pools. But while it's set in a similar environment, this film is much warmer and isn't quite as focused on the idea that all those dry swimming pools are inherently fascinating; it lets you get to know the three teenagers at its center. (It helps that, unlike the people in Dragonslayer, they're not high all the time; it's not a sentiment everyone shares, but I find people on drugs difficult to get to know, even in movies.) "Love triangle" is a touch limiting (and not all the comments in the trailer that seem to be about someone are about that person); it's really a story about a little knot of kids who know each other and date off and on, and while it doesn't sound like much, it's actually a nice little movie.
And one more note: I was kicking myself for not recognizing the influence of Wes Anderson's cinematographer Robert Yeoman in the composition of many of the shots until director Jason Tippet mentioned it in a post-screening Q&A. Because indeed, this is a very, very Wes Anderson-looking documentary.
How you would respond to Ann Richards' Texas, an unambiguously rah-rah ("borderline hagiographic" wouldn't be out of line, I don't think) portrait of the late Texas Democratic governor, depends largely on how you feel about Ann Richards. There could exist a film focusing on explaining rather than admiring her political career, but this is not that film. This is a mostly straightforward salute that presents her as a straight-shooting warrior, and whatever her flaws were, there's not much interest in them. People who love to listen to Ann Richards talk will be in heaven, as clips both familiar (her keynote address at the 1988 Democratic Convention) and less familiar (endless pieces of grainy video of her addressing various gatherings) show off her sharp tongue, but if you don't agree with her politically, this film is not for you.
The life of the subject of Plimpton! Starring George Plimpton As Himself sounds like a joke. It really does seem like it cannot possibly be the real life of a real person. Let's add it up: Edited The Paris Review and hung out with practically every important highbrow American writer of the second half of the 20th century. Served in the Army. Wrote for Sports Illustrated and wound up doing "participatory journalism" that led him to play football with the Detroit Lions, hockey with the Boston Bruins, and baseball at the All-Star Game, not to mention playing the triangle with the New York Philharmonic. Made Ernest Hemingway really angry one time. And — oh yes, that's right — helped wrestle Sirhan Sirhan onto a steam table after Bobby Kennedy was shot.
A lot of biographies use people as examples of their time, seeing the arc of a life as reflective somehow of what goes on in the larger society. This is not that kind of film. Plimpton! is really just interested in ... Plimpton, and in his weird, remarkable life. It's clear that while he got to do a lot of different things, Plimpton also made a lot of sacrifices, and punches are not pulled in explaining that life wasn't always easy for the family of a man whose ideal social environment was probably cocktail chatter. But at the same time, it's very warm to him and shows him doing all manner of interesting things. (The filmmakers raised money on Kickstarter for the specific purpose of licensing the footage they would need to complete the film.) And there's no question that if you're going to hear someone read from the works of George Plimpton and it can't be George Plimpton himself, it should be his son, whose essential Plimptonian quality is not obscured by his less patrician accent or his modern scruffy haircut.