Friday June 21, 2008

Way before "American Idol", "The Bachelor", "The Amazing Race", or even MTV's "The Real World", for U.S. reality TV viewers it basically all started with the PBS 1973 ground breaking series, "An American Family". The festival was able to obtain the rarely shown 12 part series (it is not available on DVD) and treated early risers to the entire work over 3 days. Filmmakers Alan and Susan Raymond (who have the doc "Hard Times At Douglass High" screening this week at the festival), shot over 300 hours of cinema verite-style footage over 8 months in 1971 while covering the lives of Bill & Pat Loud and their 5 children. TV Guide would eventually include it in their list of the " Greatest Television Shows of All Time". To conclude their series, they were allowed to return in 1983 to do a 10 year follow-up on the family that, during the original series, startled American when Pat Loud told hubby Bill that she wanted a divorced, and son Lance became the first person to announce that he was gay on national TV. No one had ever witnessed this type of film making before and many debated at the time whether the Raymond's presence was the catalyst for the events and not just an uninvolved observer of the family changes as the Louds became national media celebrities in the process. Today I got up early to catch the one hour 1983 show (*** 1/2) as well as their 2003 "Lance Loud! A Death In An American Family"(****)-filmed at Lance's request when he entered a hospice in 2001. Anyone who saw the amazing 1964 British Series "Seven Up" as it followed the lives of 7 year olds every 7 years, knows the fascination of watching human beings grow and mature over the course of many years. We learn that, thirty years later, Bill had remarried, Pat was adjusting to a new career as a single person in New York, Lance had set up shop in the Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan, joined in New York by sister Delilah, while the other children, Kevin, Grant, and Michelle were embarking on careers as young adults. And, although Lance's flamboyant lifestyle ultimately led to his death, the 2001 show also focused on a Lance that those familiar with the series never knew. He became a talented writer of the pop scene in many national magazines and the touching tribute by The Raymonds was a fitting and beautiful coda to this amazing series-especially when it was revealed at the end that, at Lances' request, his parents reunite at his funeral. Not only did they conform to his wishes, we learned that they were currently back living together! An amazing work by 2 extremely talented and influential film makers. (Note: Although, as previously mentioned, the original series is not available, "Lance Loud! A Death In An American Family" is available for purchase on the film makers' web site:

Next was Danish director, Phie Ambo's take on robotic technology, the U.S. premiere of "Mechanical Love" (***). which focused on the current work of Professor Hiroshi Ishigur of Japan's Nagoya University. The fascinating film has the viewer asking questions as to what value we should be placing on inanimate objects made to look and act like real animals and humans. We witness the effect that "Paro", the robotic seal is having on an elderly German nursing home patient whose affection and love for the "pet" is probably extending her will to live. It is revealed that studies involving the elderly and those with dementia have shown improved brain activity as a result of the continual interaction with "Paro". We later learn that over 2,000 Paro's have already been sold as they are about to enter the U.S. at the cost of $3,000 per. Also, featured was the professor's work on a Germinoid, a robot made to look exactly like a human-in this case himself. You see him and his students work to bring this robot to life as he prepares for an interaction between it and his 8 year old daughter to see if she can feel it's presence, or "sonzai kan". Although the emotional connection is never made between the mechanical and the human in this instance, it raises questions as to when such connections will ultimately be made as the technology continues to improve. Although the scenes tended to go on a bit too long (I was yearning to known more information about the manufacturing process) , it did offer an interesting look into this "future is now" topic. At the conclusion of the screening, 2 Paro's were offered up to the audience to hold and to pet to get a close first-hand look and feel of the technology.

From robots to an intimate peak into polygamy with the intriguing North American premiere of "Four Wives-One Man" (*** 1/2). Award winning Swedish director Nahid Persson ("Prostitution Behind The Veil") takes her cameras into rural Iran, the country of her birth, and specifically into the household of Heda, his mother, 4 wives, and 20 children. You witness the hierarchical structure of the household as each wife conspires and unites with their marital equals as they grapple with a husband whose wandering ways is about to introduce a 5th wife into the crowded mix. Often humorous and, at times, extremely poignant, this a complex situation that few people will ever get to witness close-up.

Back to the U.S. for a wonderful portrait, and exquisitely made film, about 2 unassuming everyday folks (a postal clerk and a librarian) who just happen to be two of the most influential art collectors in history. First time director Megumi Sasaki's brilliant world premiere of "Herb And Dorothy" (****) was about the Vogels, who amassed over 4,000 works by unknown minimalist and conceptual artists while operating on only 2 rules: they could afford it and it could fit into their one-bedroom rent controlled Manhattan apartment. Needless to say there was no room for a couch! I first became fascinated with this amazing couple when I saw a "60 Minutes" feature in the early 90's when their collection became famous after donating (!) it to the National Gallery Of Art. It took 5 full size vans to take the collection out their apartment to Washington. Interestingly, the trip to DC was, at first, never considered a definitive one-way deal and the real question became, should the museum ultimately refuse the donation after they examined it, how would they be able to cram all those works of art back into their apartment? Despite the fact that their collection was worth millions, the Vogels were merely interested in the safe keeping of the collection (many of their works were covered over with cloth on the apartment walls to protect them from light damage) and they refused to donate to a museum which wasn't free to the public. In fact, they never received, or wanted, a dime from the sale of anything they possessed, but agreed to receive a stipend offered by the National Gallery-which they used, of course, to buy more art! The film has a wonderful arc in its presentation as you follow the meager existence of these 2 generous souls whose keen eye and feel for the quality of art they collected have immortalized them for all time. And the added presence of Dorothy (in her 70's) and Herb (in his 80's) for the Q & A only made the presentation more exciting. Bravo to the selecting committee for the world premier screening of this work of cinematic art!

After the exhilaration of the Vogels, I attended Silverdocs annual outdoor screening that is usually tied in with one of the themes of the festival. A nice companion to the opening night film, was legendary Albert & David Maysles ground breaking and rarely seen direct cinema style doc, "What's Happening! The Beatles In The U.S.A" (***). Covering the group when they first arrived in New York in 1964 in preparation for their Ed Sullivan historic appearances and concert tour, you get a wonderful feel for the times and craziness as Beatlemania was just taking root. You get an intimate look into their personalities inside their Plaza suite and limos, and follow them as they embark on their first concert tour. The film meanders a bit and the sound quality (where the Maysles use only the camera mike) are prehistoric compared to what we are now routinely used to, but the doc is an important historic work and a wonderful "You Are There" glimpse into the lives of 4 lads from Liverpool who have since made musical history.