Ah, to experience the fruits of Sundance’s programming labors without the Park City frostbite, deafening hype, and droves of industry douchebags! Now in its third year, the Brooklyn Academy of Music packages up some highlights from the 2008 festival, including 22 features (some still lacking distribution) and 36 shorts, plus live concerts, art installations, and miscellaneous diversions. As is the growing trend at festivals, the Sundance documentaries tend to be more potent than the narrative features overall, but who can tell the difference between the two these days?
The question needs to be asked after watching the only glaring doc misfire of the bunch: American Teen, which kicks off opening night with a prom-themed after-party. The Kid Stays in the Picture‘s Nanette Burstein nabbed a directing prize for her super-slick, superficial portrait of four Indiana high-school seniors. There’s the basketball jock, the queen bitch, the zitty band dork, and the artistic misfit, each an overly familiar archetype that Burstein neither tries to subvert nor reinforce. We watch them hang out, date, gossip, and withstand parental pressures, but there’s something off-putting about how precisely and conveniently the drama turns (a girl professes she’ll love her boyfriend forever; the next scene focuses on said beau’s aloof expression; then cut to the girl crying about the breakup in a friend’s arms). Even the finest reality-TV editors couldn’t have manipulated footage this smoothly without some serious prefabrication (the camera zooms into the same brooding girl’s “chanced-upon” blank gaze to instigate the first of many inner-psyche animation sequences), yet it’s not just the gray areas between fact and tabloid fiction that color the movie irresponsible. Documentarians have long been crafting entertaining narrative “pop docs” to liven up the dry PBS stigma of nonfiction storytelling (perfect example: the marvelous tightrope act Man on Wire, also screening in the series), but when the crowd-pleasing sheen is the goal, not the vehicle, the doc’s inevitable commercial success is sure to flood the market with empty-souled copycats. The Hills belongs on MTV, not on the fest circuit.
For a thornier and more engaging look at segregated social systems, Margaret Brown’s provocative The Order of Myths finds a sly balance between droll and melancholy to examine contemporary race relations through the filter of Mardi Gras rituals in Mobile, Alabama, home to America’s oldest bead-tossing extravaganza. Each year, the city’s all-white mystic societies choose a king, queen, and royal court to represent Mobile during the formal festivities, in which the only black participants are dancers, torch bearers, or marching-band members. Simultaneously, a similarly elected all-black court puts on its own parade—except that the black parade has to rent its floats from the white folks after they’re done using them for the day. Through uneasy juxtapositions (the phrase “well-educated colored people” comes out of a masqueraded face, a little too Klan-like for comfort) and jaw-dropping reveals (the black queen is a grade-school teacher, the white queen is a descendent of Mobile’s most affluent slave-owning family), Brown bears witness to the first announced presentation of the black court in a white person’s house—the angst of this racial divide so deep-rooted that mutual tolerance can only be approached in baby steps.
But if you only catch one doc at BAM, dear God, please make it Anvil! The Story of Anvil. Far too candid and heartbreaking to deserve its common pigeonholing as “a real-life This Is Spinal Tap,” former roadie Sacha Gervasi’s reunion with the long-forgotten, still-struggling Canadian metal band Anvil is an absurdly side-splitting underdog tale without a hint of condescension. Frontloaded with rocking heads for introductory validation (Slash, Lemmy, Lars Ulrich), the film catches up with lifelong buds Steve “Lips” Kudlow and Robb Reiner, who, once upon an ’80s time, played their guitars with dildos on the same stage as Bon Jovi, Scorpions, and Whitesnake. Here they are now, in their fifties, rocking out in a suburban sports bar while their shitty day jobs await, teen rock-star fantasies still fueling their existence. These guys aren’t the brightest bulbs, but their determination awes as we track their progress toward one last chance for stadium-filled success in Japan. Lips and Reiner will perform live in BAMcafé after the screening. If you catch superfans Cut Loose and Mad Dog in attendance, please buy ’em a beer for me.