What is the future of digital filmmaking? Will it lead, as I've often dreaded, to a massive flood of hack films from self-important "auteurs"? Will it become harder and harder, in coming years, to sift through the crap that's produced and find whatever quality might be buried beneath? Or will digital equipment expand the art of film, continually bringing fresh voices to a formerly cost-prohibitive art form? Will it be a true revolution?
The jury's still out (the likely answer: probably all of the above), but one thing is for certain: Digital cameras and laptop editing are already revolutionizing the documentary, with often triumphant results. Case in point: Last year's SIFF, which was saturated with a number of excellent documentaries. Another case in point: Northwest Film Forum's annual First Person Cinema series, which runs this week at the Little Theatre--a series of small documentaries with subjects ranging from near-forgotten artists to the Holocaust to profiles of naked, troublesome mothers. First Person Cinema is a jewel of sorts for Seattle--a yearly visit of work that would be almost impossible to find anywhere else.
This year's series begins on Friday, September 26, with a rare showing of John Walter's How to Draw a Bunny, which may not make it back to town anytime soon, so see it now. A documentary on wack artist Ray Johnson, Bunny is by most every report absolutely brilliant--an investigative, occasionally troubling look at a man whose entire life appears to have been one self-destructive art installation. A hit at the 2002 Sundance Film Festival, Bunny was quickly snatched up by a minor studio and has been tucked away for the past year, which places its showing at the Little Theatre in the category of a Big Event.
Also appearing: Speedo: A Demolition Derby Love Story (Sat-Sun Sept 27-28), a slight but engrossing profile of Ed "Speedo" Jager. Lanky and mustachioed, Jager is a Long Island resident and demolition-derby fanatic whose life revolves around repairing junk, be it cars or his own crumbling life. Expertly made (the titles used throughout are particularly smart, especially for such a thrifty piece of work), Speedo begins on the road to disaster but ends with a glimmer of sad hope, and it is a quietly effective film, obviously emotionally attached to its subject, but distant enough to be able to criticize with the camera lens.
Girl Wrestler, which appears Tuesday, September 30, is directed by Diane Zander and follows a 13-year-old Texan named Tara Neal as she struggles for the right to tussle with boys on the mat, stumbling into arguments both for and against Title IX in the process. Thoughtful and investigative, it is the type of work that, tiny in budget but sincere in effort, is strong enough to overcome its failures--most of which are minor--of creative execution.
Wednesday, October 1, offers two documentaries that look back at the follies of childhood. First up is Marjoe, a rare work from 1972 that follows a former child evangelist (on the revival circuit, pre-700 Club and its ilk) who, years after leaving the church, returns to explore and expose the trade at the age of 20. Second is Put the Camera on Me, a thoroughly fucked-up flick from Darren Stein and Adam Shell. In it, Stein, director of the rather terrible film Jawbreaker, explores the video work he made as a kid with the help of his neighborhood friends. That work, shot with a pretentious eye on early VHS video, tackled everything from standard hero fare to sex to the Holocaust, with Stein's friends--all of whom were pre-puberty during production--playing a variety of roles (often dressed in their mothers' clothing). The result is a decent (though not always well-made) exploration of childhood and the confusion of innocence, with the videos Stein shot achieving a surprising level of creepiness--a creepiness Stein and his friends may not fully realize (at least in their present-day interviews), but that is readily apparent to outside viewers.
The conclusion of the series begins on Thursday, October 2, with First Person Shorts, which comprises four short films, ranging from eight minutes to 32 minutes, offering as themes childhood (again), love triangles, homelessness, and the aforementioned naked, troublesome mothers (in Gay Block's film Bertha Alyce). The next night, October 3, gives two films, the quality of which I can't attest to: Secret Lives: Hidden Children and Their Rescuers During WWII, directed by Academy Award winner Aviva Slesin (the subject of which should be readily apparent via the title), and The Same River Twice, which, like Put the Camera on Me, looks back on the past with a current eye. It's subject, apparently: a group of former hippies who contrast their current lives with their time spent as river guides during the 1970s, when they were freer, routinely naked, and living a communal life.
And finally, on Saturday, October 4, and Sunday, October 5, the series culminates with a presentation of Andy Warhol's screen tests (titled, creatively, Andy Warhol: Screen Tests), which were created from 1964-1966 and included such notables as Lou Reed, Edie Sedgwick, Dennis Hopper, Mama Cass, and Salvador Dali. A panel discussion will follow the Saturday screening, moderated by Lyall Bush and featuring Greg Kucera, Eric Fredericksen, and Tara Young--all smart people closing out a smart, solid, personal series.