“Obscurantism’s just another word for nothin’ left to mock,” as Minnie Riperton used to sing. The Pioneer’s “Stop, Look & Listen!” film festival aims to disprove that old saw by zeroing in on the “obsessed,” those “deranged musicians and delirious music lovers,” who, fest organizers might have added, “you know, love, and quite possibly, are.” Thankfully, there are some talented people doing really excellent work in the field of post-ironic empathy. So offerings of the “Wesley Willis: He crazy” variety take a backseat to generous examinations of fan-fanatics, impassioned outsiders, and other permutations of organic weirdness.
It doesn’t get much weirder or more organic than the prehistoric sportsmen of Okie Noodling, who snare massive catfish by digging into riverbanks and yanking out their catches by hand. With its ramble-tamble Flaming Lips soundtrack, the movie, like the Lips, has a cuddly sense of the homespun and the grotesque. Laughed at yet diffidently proud, the noodlers are hungry to see their tradition validated, but remain devoted to ritual purity and a lemme-be individualism that gets a contaminating jolt when filmmaker Bradley Beesley organizes a statewide tournament. (For an equally insistent homegrown subculture, Nicholas Shumaker’s The Pocket takes a look at Washington, D.C.’s go-go scene, still thriving despite an almost total disconnect from the pop world at large.)
The record collectors in Canadian mole Alan Zweig’s Vinyl don’t exactly share the noodlers’ pride for their mire-digging lifestyle, even as they burrow into compulsive pathology (“The obscurity is infinite,” notes one FMU type). Zweig has an Underground Man amicability, turning the camera on himself for intermittent monologues that meander along what he calls “the fine line between maudlin and pathetic.” What threatens to become a mythologizing circle-jerk is in fact an AA-style intervention; Zweig really hopes he and his pals can get well, even offering to take one cave-dwelling friend out to buy shelves (“I have a car,” he notes optimistically). Hope from the wreckage also fuels Thoth, Sarah Kernochan’s Oscar-winning short about “spiritual hermaphrodite” SK Thoth, son of Jewish Caribbean parents, who investigates difference through his ecstatic performance-art “opera,” The Festad, in which he gets suited up like a cross between Pocahontas and Genesis P. Orridge to rock the violin and a Mariah-worthy vocal range in a feverishly athletic ballet—like an identity-art Abs of Steel.
Moving from outsider authenticity to mass-cult mitigation, Tribute, Rich Fox and Kris Curry’s glimpse into cover band culture, details dreamers who try to fashion a self by turning simulacra into folk art, from a would-be Gene Simmons who burns down his own house (“He got sucked up by his ego,” notes his band’s Paul Stanley) to a fan, urm, “Superfan,” who fasts before gigs by Queen-a-likes Sheer Heart Attack. They’re go-nowhere and from-nowhere, and they know full well that mere originality just ain’t gonna be enough to set them free. If only Tony Manero could cop to such wisdom. Re-released in a new 35mm print (and playing November 5 through 12), the ready-made kitsch staple Saturday Night Fever foretells today’s Brooklyn-Manhattan scene anxiety: Chortle all you want, the escapist pathos rings true for any hipster who doesn’t have the good fortune to be in the Strokes.
Into the Night: The Benny Mardones Story could have been content at simply adding the schlock heathen of 1980’s delicately prurient lite rock ballad “Into the Night” to the endless list of VH1 atrocities. (This is a guy who literally can’t recall where he was between 1983 and 1985.) But when Benny cleans up, moves to Syracuse, and becomes a local star/savior (one fan calls him up for emotional support), the film reminds us of a pre-Telecom Act era of regional celebrity. “How do you want to be remembered?” asks director Greg Ross. Quoth Benny, “Like they remembered me last Saturday night at the Turning Stone casino.”
That longing for the bygone informs Heavy Metal Parking Lot genius Jeff Krulik’s retrospective of the mid-’80s public access treasure, The Scott and Gary Show, a pre-Wayne’s World by way of Maxwells. You get a “Cookie Puss”-era Beastie Boys, a primordial Butthole Surfers, and awestruck host Gary cowering before Jad Fair like the Half Japanese leader is some big-name rock star—Benny Mardones or something. Which is exactly the sort of tiny-life-affirming delusion that makes freaky deaky geeky so beautiful. As one religiously obsessed Widespread Panic fan notes in shaggy tour doc The Earth Will Swallow You, “Ya might find 200 better bands, but, God, I don’t want to know about ’em.”