Upon a hill in a Tennessee cemetery, 43-year-old Ronnie Simonson, one of the reporters for the handicapped-anchored “show” How’s Your News?, delivers the chorus of “You Make Me So Very Happy,” then turns the melody inside out for a meditation on the state he’s in:
I love you Tennessee
O Tennessee tonight
You are the classy town
There’s a lot of nice people in this town
You are the town of nice. . .
As he sings like nothing else in Tennessee, fellow newsman Larry Perry, whose cerebral palsy is much more severe than Simonson’s, rolls on the grass, eyes closed, savoring a few minutes of freedom from his wheelchair.
Such absurd beauty informs much of Arthur Bradford’s How’s Your News? (part of HBO’s “Frame by Frame” showcase at the Screening Room), an improbably enjoyable travelogue that follows four men (the aforementioned pair, plus Robert Bird and Sean Costello, both of whom have Down’s syndrome) and one woman (the mentally disabled, legally blind Susan Harrington) on a trip across America to discover the answer to the titular query. (Bradford developed the news-team format with them while a counselor at a camp for the handicapped.) As Simonson tells a sunglassed motorcycle enthusiast, “It’s my biggest dream. What’s your biggest dream?”
The stars seem to bring out the best in the people they meet. Soft-spoken Costello sums up Texas with a poetic specificity hewn from cultural memory (“a good place to have cowboys, guns, boots, and hats”); Bird’s unintelligible speech, far from signifying nothing, becomes a Rorschach test for his interviewees, and his imitation of a Texas livestock auctioneer might as well be the real thing. Soap opera connoisseur Simonson (whose nightly prayers include David Hasselhoff) regales people with celebrity impersonations, the better joke being that they all sound more or less the same. And Harrington has absorbed the dramatic imperatives of news presentation (“We are live in an Arizona auto repair shop,” she announces, investigating the status of their busted RV) and the inalienable right to be Aretha. Unleashing “Respect” in a Vegas karaoke booth, she careens from note to note while virtual-reality non sequiturs morph on the screen behind her. Bradford’s knack for the strange and wonderful moment is nearly as marvelous as her voice.
Farther from home but less novel, the Norwegian doc Cool & Crazy offers gentle portraits of the Berlevåg Male Choir’s mostly geriatric members, whose ranks include a dyslexic fisherman, an agnostic organist (“I am a multi-instrumentalist, but not very good at any of them”), several erstwhile womanizers, and the indestructible Strand brothers (average age: 91). Set against the extreme clime of Norway’s northern reaches, the film posits that all men are brothers, even at ultima Thule. A trip to Murmansk provides some welcome tension: Sucker-punched by the Soviet-raped landscape, the Norsemen berate the unrepentant fellow traveler in their ranks—who nevertheless salutes the Red Army casualties incurred at the Litsa Front. Ironically, this docu-musical’s blandest ingredient is the music itself—it’s like listening to a dozen national anthems in a single sitting. (One almost roots for the howling blizzards to obliterate the old salts’ wan stylings.) Isak Dinesen put Babette in frozen Berlevåg to cook up a storm and thaw ascetic hearts; if music be the food of love, Cool & Crazy could stand a few more hits from the spice rack.
Holden Caulfield liked Dinesen so much he would have phoned her up if he could; watching the icky and inert Dog Run, you hope Salinger has caller ID. A young runaway herein foists a copy of The Catcher in the Rye onto an inquisitive child with the tip, “Every kid should read this book if they want to be cool.” It’s a pose, like everything else on-screen. Depicting the squatters and panhandlers of the Lower East Side, the movie certainly smells like street-teen spirit, with its lax showering regimen and penchant for shooting heroin in the john. But Dog Run mistakes milieu for meaning; its succinct title’s at least a word too long.