Atlanta Film Festival 2012 | Day 3

atl-film-fest-logo 75Judging from this documentary, his character is as exuberant as his work, and he seems to be one of those lucky people who simply can’t stop creating: It’s almost as if he simply lacks the inhibitions that make many people stop and question themselves.

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Before viewing Neal Berkeley’s documentary Beauty Is Embarrassing, I wasn’t familiar with the name of Wayne White, but it turns out I’m familiar with his work—and chances are you are, too. White was one of the creators of Pee Wee’s Playhouse (he did the voices of Randy, Dirty Dog, and one of the flowers, as well as creating many of the set designs and puppets) and also did the art for the Smashing Pumpkin’s video of “Tonight, Tonight” (inspired by George Melies’ “A Trip to the Moon”). Judging from this documentary, his character is as exuberant as his work, and he seems to be one of those lucky people who simply can’t stop creating: It’s almost as if he simply lacks the inhibitions that make many people stop and question themselves. The appeal of some of White’s later work escapes me (one of his specialties is slogans, many containing the f-word, painted over tacky thrift-store landscape paintings), but there’s no accounting for taste, is there?

I particularly appreciate the fact that White is a builder, in the sense that he loves working with physical materials; leading a team of students building a giant puppet, he handles cardboard and a glue gun with the enthusiasm which the kids can’t help but catch. White’s philosophy of life seems to be “Just do it,” and that’s what he’s been doing more or less his whole life. His father tells a story about giving two-year-old Wayne a big pad of paper and a pencil—the kid proceeded to cover every page with drawings, then turned them over and drew on the backs. Interviews with White friends and family don’t go terribly deep, but paint his portrait as that of a guy who loves what he does, and who has enjoyed an admirable support system that allows him to follow his creative impulses. (His wife, also an artist, gave up a gig on The Simpsons to raise their two kids.) White’s life is also a strong argument for public university education, and not just at the flagship schools. He attended Middle Tennessee State, which he says opened up the world of art to him and set him on his adult path. You can see the trailer for Beauty Is Embarrassing here:

If you didn’t know there is a National AIDS Memorial Grove in San Francisco, you have a lot of company. Honestly, when I saw this title in the Pink Peach series (for gay and lesbian films), I thought it was about Fire Island, and even people walking through Golden Gate Park, where the Memorial is located, seem to happen on it by accident, on the way to the Japanese Gardens.  Anyway, I now know better, thanks to Andy Abrahams Wilson’s documentary The Grove. Wilson’s subject is the history and meaning of the AIDS Memorial, beginning with its creation in 1988 by a dedicated group of volunteers, and ending with the controversy over adding a memorial sculpture to what was primarily a landscaped area of natural beauty within a much larger park. This documentary, although well intentioned, feels both too long and too short—too long in that it tells more than any outsider wants to know about what comes down to a local community struggle, and too short in that it tries to encapsulate the whole political and social history of AIDS in the United States before getting around the topic of the film. On the plus side, the cinematography (also by Wilson) is stunning, and many who speak about the Grove are eloquent in expressing their particular connection to this place. You can see the trailer here:

It feels really ungenerous to say anything bad about Mohammed Yunus, the Bangladeshi aff bonsai-peopleeconomist who won the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize for his work in developing microcredit, a system for making extremely small, uncollateralized loans to poor people, primarily women, in developing countries. But Holly Mosher’s documentary Bonsai People: The Vision of Mohammed Yunus invites that reaction by presenting such a glowing advertisement for Yunus and the work of the Grameen Bank that you expect to see him sporting a halo and playing a harp. The highly publicized charges that ill-advised microcredit has led many of society’s most vulnerable to contract debts they cannot repay (a problem exacerbated by 18% interest rates) is dismissed near the end of the film, without sufficient explanation.

The best parts of Bonsai People are the portraits of the women who run businesses financed by the loans. You get a sense of what it must be like to be married off at age 10, to start having children as soon as you are physically able, and to live in a society where you aren’t supposed to even speak to a man who is not a relative. Despite these handicaps, many village women have managed to use microloans to start profitable businesses, putting the money toward educating their children and improving their family’s living conditions. Bonsai People would be easier to take if we heard more from these women and had fewer of Yunus’ aphorisms hammered into our heads (the title comes from one of them in which he compares poor people to bonsai trees, in the sense of their being constrained by their circumstances). You can see the trailer here:

aff hurry-up-waitThe band-tour documentary is becoming a standard genre, and one that is hard to screw up too badly, given the cinematic possibilities of live music, a cast of characters used to performing, lots of different locations in which to shoot, and the almost-inevitable screw-ups and triumphs that come with any series of performances. Hurry Up and Wait, Justin Malone’s documentary about the 2009 European tour of the Atlanta-based Gringo Star, is neither the best nor the worst of its genre, but is probably of most interest to fans of the band or to those who just can’t hear enough about life on the road. Gringo Star’s members are a likeable and hard-working bunch of guys who tour a lot but haven’t yet gotten their big break. So one night they play in an almost-empty bar, another night before 2,000 people; they sleep in their touring van to save money when they’re not wearing out the hospitality of friends they have made in previous tours; and after their biggest triumph to date, an appearance on a Belgian TV show, it’s back to Atlanta and dishwashing gigs and rehearsals until the next tour.

Hurry Up and Wait is not a bad film, just one that doesn’t distinguish itself from many similar films. It’s not the filmmaker’s fault that life didn’t hand the band an incredible breakthrough to make a dramatic ending to the film, but it does mean that there’s not much shape to the story it tells. The interview with band members, family, and friends are all perfectly pleasant, but they don’t have much to say that hasn’t been said many times before. You can see the trailer here: | Sarah Boslaugh  


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