Take Troy Hurtubise, the subject of Peter Lynch's documentary Project Grizzly (kicking off the series in a special show at the Seattle Art Museum). Hurtubise is a somewhat smug but likable woodsman who once ended up face-to-face with a grizzly bear when he was out hiking. Fortunately, his staring contest with the "old man" (as Hurtubise calls all grizzlies) ended without incident, but the fear it sent through him must have been intoxicating. Since then he's dedicated himself to building a suit of armor that can stand up to the onslaught of a bear attack. The almost grim determination of the suit designers can be off-putting, as can Hurtubise's self-mythologizing, but the spectacle of a team of people dedicating themselves to a "safe" wrestling match with a grizzly cannot be contemplated without admiration, at least for the bizarre uniqueness of their goal. (Hurtubise was originally scheduled to attend the screening. Sadly, the lure of a bigger payday in Germany led him to cancel.)
Two documentaries by Les Blank (Sat-Sun April 24-25) show perfectly why film lovers the world over think of Werner Herzog whenever the term "obsessive" pops up. Blank's Burden of Dreams is the chronicle of the making of Herzog's Fitzcarraldo, a project the director was committed to pulling off come hell, high water, a record-setting drought, the quitting of his two stars midway through, and the logistical nightmare of dragging a steamboat up a mountainside. It's paired with the short Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe, which shows Herzog making good on a bet with documentary filmmaker Errol Morris: see, Herzog never thought Morris could finish his wonderful debut, Gates of Heaven, much less get it distributed. He lost his bet.
All cynical thoughts about the movie business aside, Gates of Heaven (Wed-Thurs April 28-29) is just too good not to have been released. An intimate study of the pet cemetery business, the film scores a few easy laughs out of the intricacies of business licenses and the listless rebellion of a cemetery owner's rock-star wannabe son, but mostly just captures the quiet dignity of people eulogizing their lost companions.
I haven't seen So Wrong They're Right (Mon-Tues April 26-27), Russ Forester's homage to fellow collectors of 8-Track tapes, but I'm assured it is great fun. Far from grumpy technophobes, these are people who remain convinced the 8-Track system offers the best possible mix of sound reproduction (a scientist even gets brought in to confirm this), convenience, and endurability. Some are even "obsessed" enough to stage protests when their local thrift store decides to cease stocking them.
Week two kicks off with John O'Brien's mockumentary, Man With a Plan (Fri April 30), about a retired dairy farmer who decides to run for Congress and earn some real money. Like most American films about politics, this is pure wish-fulfillment fantasy; candidate Fred Tuttle is about as believably well-rounded as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington's Jefferson Smith. He's also nearly as likable.
The Ruling Class (Sat-Sun May 1-2) is an admirably over-the-top "let's try anything" satire from 1972, starring Peter O'Toole as an insane earl who believes he's Jesus Christ (albeit a very hip Jesus). Unlike most English comedies, this one's actually funny. In fact, it's so good that many of us who've seen it still have a soft spot for director Peter Medak, despite his having descended to the depths of Pontiac Moon and Species 2.
The aforementioned director Les Blank's son, Harrod, showed he could construct a movie almost as well as his old man with Wild Wheels (Mon-Tues May 3-4), a salute to those cars you occasionally see on the street that demand a double-take: cars covered in grass, marbles, toy dolls, buttons, mirrors, what have you. The autos themselves are fun to look at, but I'll always admire young Blank for allowing one old man a few precious minutes of screen time to tenderly recall his late wife. His car is one of the most garish, but it's lovely, too.
Finally, after two weeks of movies that look at crackpots and obsessives, the series ends with a film that looks like it was made by one. Craig Baldwin's Tribulation 99 (Wed-Thurs May 6-7) is fanatically deranged, and one of the best films of the decade: a prolonged paranoid rant about cold-war conspiracies, alien abductions, and ancient Aztecs. It's constructed out of found footage, mostly maps that suddenly get blotted with huge red arrows sweeping menacingly north. By the end, you may not be convinced of a thing, but you might concede that lunatic terror isn't an unreasonable response to forces out of your control.