Three categories at this year’s GPFF include documentaries: Documentary Short, Documentary Feature, and Made for Public TV. On Tuesday August 5 we sat through six.
Cyclotherapyis a crowd-pleasing documentary on Schwinn bike collectors. It’s a portrait of unlikely protagonists who are eccentric, quirky, and passionate about what they do. One describes his hobby as “sort of a passion-slash-sickness.” These are the kind of people Christopher Guest makes fun of (or pays tribute to) in his “mockumentaries.”
Most people portrayed collect Sting-Rays and the like. Perhaps the names “Orange Krate” and “Pea Picker” will ring a bell with you. If not the names, perhaps you’ll remember the shiny, speckled banana seats. Originally, these bikes sold for $25, brand new. Now the rarest, most popular models sell for $2,000.
Cyclotherapyshows collectors of other styles of bikes, too. One antique specimen, a tandem bike with an infant seat, ridden by the Schwinn family themselves, sold at auction for over $90,000.
The documentary is a little rambling. For example,Cyclotherapychanges into a handyman show as a team of experts restore an Orange Krate, where before the movie was all about the collectors. But the sense of fun makes it easy to overlook any flaws.
Delafield is a township in rural Minnesota. There is no town of Delafield, just a township (like a county, but smaller), at the center of which is an Evangelical Lutheran church. Recently, the church board voted to disband and donate the building to a society that would preserve it.
Filmmaker Mark Brodin was shaken by news of the loss and went back home to Delafield to see what was behind the decision to disband and move the church. Brodin delves into the death of the family farm, the increase of the average acreage per farmer, the emigration of people — particularly young couples — to the cities. He makes an effective emotional point that this is a tragic loss, the sad passing of a way of life, and that the loss of the old wooden church is a symbol for dying rural communities everywhere.
AlthoughDelafieldis moving and works emotionally, sometimes that emotion gets the better of reason. Brodin reminisces about sitting in the carefully measured distance between rows of corn and admiring “nature.” In presenting the history of the area, he glibly glosses over the Indians displaced to make way for the Scandinavian immigrants. And toward the end he presents the plight of local farmers to politicians, who pick up the cry, but who never convincingly saywhyAmerica should preserve this way of life as anything but a fond memory.
The documentary is very well photographed. It may have the best cinematography in its class at the GPFF. It also shows some amazingly well preserved (or well restored) film footage from bygone days. The brilliant reds, greens, and golds of tractors, fields, and corn are more vivid than memories. Brodin occasionally resorts to little visual lies. There is some modern black and white footage set to the sound of a projector to make it seem older. But nearly every documentary at the GPFF is guilty of this sort of deception, andDelafieldis probably less egregious than most.
Thanks to the wonderful look and emotional power,Delafieldis one of the better documentaries at this year’s GPFF. Although it lost toThe Great American Footrace, it would have received my vote for Best Public Television entry.
Death of a Skyline
Another portrait of changing rural landscapes isDeath of a Skyline, about a vanishing breed of building: grain elevators. Civilization hasn’t outgrown its need for grain elevators, but it has become more efficient. Economies of scale call for fewer, larger elevators. Instead of elongated wooden churches, the new ones are clusters of concrete cylinders.
So we build new elevators, but why tear down the old ones? Grain companies pay property taxes on standing buildings, so they are inclined to tear them down. Plus, as they age, they become greater liabilities. Then there are people like the English demolition man, one of the primary subjects ofDeath of a Skyline. Paul specializes in the salvage of parts and timber from grain elevators. The “legs” are prized pieces oversized lumber, while any boards that lined the grain chutes have amazing, artistic wear patterns. Besides, Paul seems to take sadistic pleasure in gutting, then toppling these old buildings.
The narrator adopts a folksy Western voice, and the cinematography is handsome and golden. If there is anything to be said against the movie, it is that it’s probably a bit too long. Some of the tangents feel too tangential (like one preservation society’s tempest-in-a-teapot politics), and the movie seems to repeat itself. It’s not the best of the GPFF, but it certainly fits with the festival’s theme, and it links two of the other films we saw this day:Delafield(for the changing rural landscape), andCyclotherapy(for the obsessiveness of its subjects).
As organizers and participants repeat, the Miss Navajo pageant is not about outer beauty, but about who you are and how well you can represent Navajo traditions and ideals. Miss Navajo is, after all, an ambassador to the rest of the world for her one-year reign.
The year that John C.P. Goheen videotaped the pageant, there were only three contestants. Many lamented the small field of candidates, but that makes for a good documentary: it allows us to get to know all of the candidates up-close.
One of the contestants seems down-home sincere, but shy, and a little slow on the uptake. In contrast, the sharpest of the bunch is also the most “beautiful” by Western standards: perfect smooth skin, very style-conscious, very worldly and assimilated into American culture. The third contestant splits the difference.
The contest is very different from the one Bob Barker hosts. These women compete in categories from interviews (in both English and Navajo), to evening gowns, to butchery. On the final day of the competition, the women butcher and cook a sheep.
American Nizhoniis the second movie by John C.P. Goheen that we saw at GPFF. Both are very good, althoughAmerican Nizhoni(which won the Rainbow Award for ethnic heritage) may be a little more polished and a little less spontaneous.
Now, then, forever
The Good Samaritan nursing home in Auburn, Nebraska, looks a lot like any other nursing home. Patients vary in capacity from ambulatory to vegetative. There is a salon, an aviary, visiting schoolchildren, and an alarm on the front door.
Now, then, foreveris a portrait of the people inside the home (there are also a few brief interviews with some of the town’s aging population). Unlike David Greenberger’sDuplex Planet, there is no quirky hip-ness to these residents. Many complain. Most look sad and lonely, although all their physical needs are cared for. The portrait is short of depressing, but it is bleak, at least to my middle-aged eyes.
My favorite documentarian is Frederick Wiseman, who has a narratorless, subjective style. Of all the documentaries at GPFF,Now, then, foreveris the most like Wiseman’s work. The movie presents life at the home without commenting on conditions or taking sides on any issues. For texture, the scenes in the home are broken up by shots of the small streets of Auburn.
Although the style mimics one of my favorite filmmakers, it’s not quite up to Wiseman’s standards. The camera tries too hard for interesting angles. Glare, foreground figures, and extreme closeups make for interesting photography, but too often I’m conscious of the camera operator’s choice and not conscious enough of the subject.
The Great American Footrace
If I turned on PBS at random, I might expect to find something likeThe Great American Footrace. (In fact, this movie was made for PBS, and won the Made for Public TV competition at GPFF.) It tells the story of a young Cherokee, Andy Payne, who won an amazing footrace from L.A. to New York City. The race followed the then-young Route 66 and took 84 days to complete.
The story is interesting, but the producers made many bad decisions. There is incessant music over every interview. There are re-enactments, including awkward segments of an actor, lit in an strange orange glow, portraying Will Rogers. Basically, it looks like the product of skilled but jaded producers, more interested in making TV programs than in their subject matter.
It’s exactly the sort of thing — interesting but ignorable — that my mom would have on in the background while she sips her decaf and plays solitaire Scrabble.