Saturday, May 30, 2009

Two Documentaries

I enjoy documentaries, and more of them seem to get made than are readily available in "a theater near you." (True confession time, though: I currently live within walking distance of two theaters that show documentaries fairly regularly.) Still, there are a lot to catch up on so I frequently browse the Documentaries category on Netflix; here are two recent viewings.

The Ballad of Ramblin' Jack : Aiyana Elliott, the filmmaker, is the daughter of Ramblin' Jack Elliott, the legendary and self-invented folksinger, and one of his several ex-wives. Jack wasn't around much while Aiyana was growing up, and the viewer can see that she harbors some hurt and resentment about that. She also has a strong desire to figure out who her father really is, what makes him tick. So this film is both a biography of Ramblin' Jack Elliott and an exploration of the father-daughter relationship, given a largely absent father.

Elliott Adnopoz was born and raised in Brooklyn, son of a Jewish doctor and his wife. He has one brother, and they frequently visited their grandparents' farm in Connecticut. Interviews with the brother and a surviving aunt elicit such comments as (paraphrasing here): "I don't remember much joy or laughter at home" and "She (Elliott's mother) was mean and nasty. Nobody liked her." (This from her own sister, I believe!) It doesn't surprise us, then, that young Elliott Adnopoz ran away from home at age 16 to join a rodeo, where he became Jack Elliott, nor that he has had trouble with responsibility and forming lasting attachments throughout his life. It does seem to me that the senior Adnopozes may not have been as bad as all that -- they do scour the East Coast for him, offering a reward, when he runs away, and indeed he did come back to finish high school with no apparent punishment; and later when he is performing in England there are mentions of his parents being in the audience. They were probably still trying to understand him.

The story of how Elliott Adnopoz became Ramblin' Jack Elliott is not the story of a fake. Obviously, he really is a fine musician who learned from the best, starting with listening to the Grand Ol' Op'ry late at night as a teenager, to hanging out with the giants of American folk music and learning all he could from them. He has also done a lot of the hard, dirty jobs that many only sing about, from rodeo groom to deckhand to truckdriver and more. It's hard not to like him, and even his ex-wives don't really have anything bad to say about him. The film is a great look back at the Folk Revival of the 1950s and '60s -- it's hard not to sing along throughout. It's a little less successful at Aiyana's apparent attempt to understand her father. Portions of the film show them together in an RV traveling from gig to gig, and Aiyana keeps trying to get her dad to have some kind of deep, meaningful talk -- which never happens, and Jack doesn't seem to have a clue what it is she wants. I think in the end she realizes that he is what he is, was, and will be, and that's all, and perhaps has some peace with that. I'd definitely recommend this film, though.

Another documentary, which I watched "instantly" on my computer, is OT: Our Town. Remember the theme I mentioned a few posts back, of working class people and fulfillment through art? There's a whole subgenre of documentary films with a similar theme -- in which a teacher or volunteer introduces a marginalized group (students, prisoners, mental patients) to great art through having them perform it. I never seem to tire of these stories and I liked OT: Our Town very much. It's also only about 90 minutes long, a plus when watching on the computer.

The film was shot at Dominguez High School in Compton, California. Compton is known as the home of the gangsta-rap group NWA, and Dominguez is a troubled high school which appears to be all black and Hispanic students and whose one bright spot was its winning basketball team. It appears that a disproportionate amount of the school's resources, both financial and intangible, go to the basketball team. (Teams? I didn't see any girls' basketball in the film.) The kids who aren't on the team seem to feel a lack of pride in their school, their neighborhood, and themselves. Into this scene come two teachers who decide that Dominguez will have its first school play in over 20 years, and that the play will be Thornton Wilder's Our Town. At first the kids, though excited about the idea of performing, are dubious about the play. First produced in 1938, set in a small all-white town in New Hampshire in the pre-World War I era, what relevance can it have to their lives in 21st-century Compton? You can tell that the cast members are bright and articulate, and at least some of them come from fairly stable homes, but they also don't think of themselves as successful people, and this can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. They have difficulty learning their lines, showing up for rehearsal, and so on, and often get discouraged. At times the teachers, too, are nearly ready to give up. Up until the last minute they don't even have a stage to practice or perform on. (When one of the filmmakers suggests using the gym, the student response makes clear that that's ground sacred to the basketball coach and his team and not for ordinary mortals.)

The film shows us the cast members at home as well as at school and rehearsals. Some of the casting is almost too good, as with the boy who plays Simon Stimson (the town drunk/organist/choir director who hangs himself in the play), and who himself has attempted suicide and has experienced several suicides among his close friends. Then again, these are still teenagers and the giggles and embarrassment when the actors playing George Gibbs and Emily Webb have to kiss are the same reactions you'll see in high school theatres across America.

For those who may not be familiar with the play, the director has interspersed cuts from the 1977 television production of Our Town, starring Hal Holbrook as the Stage Manager. These scenes are in black and white (consciously archaic at the time), whereas the present-day California high school is rife with color and pattern both on and off "stage." To increase the students' sense of the play's relevance to their own lives, the teachers suggest that the kids incorporate elements of ethnic dress into their costumes. The most stunning of these is the highly decorated Mexican wedding suit -- his father's -- worn by the boy playing George Gibbs. By the time they have their sold-out performance, the cast members have internalized the lessons of Wilder's play and "Our Town" is Compton as well as Grover's Corners.

At the end of such films, there's often a set of words on the screen updating us on what happened to the participants later on. In OT: Our Town, we are told only that another play was produced the following year, and that "there hasn't been a riot at Dominguez High in two years." I'd have liked some more follow-up, but I'd still recommend the film.

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