Movies with Meaning

By Jim Cullen

Some more independent features and documentaries that were screened at the South By Southwest Film Festival in Austin. Catch them if you can. (See “Polished Documentaries Shine,” 4/15/08 TPP, and for more information.)

Battle in Seattle, a fictionalized account of the mass protests that stalled the 1999 World Trade Organization conference in Seattle, was directed by Stuart Townsend with a cast that includes Martin Henderson, Charlize Theron, Woody Harrelson, Ray Liotta, Michelle Rodriguez and Andre Benjamin. Townsend weaves the stories of committed young protesters, a mayor who tries to balance the right to protest with the demands that the city ensure a smooth-running conference, WTO participants that are not only trade bureaucrats but also well-meaning reps of non-governmental organizations and police who are confused as they first are instructed to stand by as protesters shut down the downtown area and then are told to crack down and clear the streets. But disruptions eventually cause the WTO talks to be put off. When that news reached the hundreds of jailed protesters, Benjamin’s character claims victory: “A week ago, nobody knew what the WTO was. They still don’t know what it is, but now at least they know it’s bad.” By the time the next round was held in Doha, Qatar, in 2001, protesters were kept far away from the meetings but much of the “free trade” consensus had disappeared.

Dreams with Sharp Teeth, directed by Erik Nelson, documents the life of legendary fantasy writer Harlan Ellison. Ellison is best known as a writer for TV series such as Star Trek (he wrote “City on the Edge of Forever,” in which Kirk, Spock and McCoy travel back in time to Depression-era Chicago), Outer Limits (he wrote “Demon with a Glass Hand,” in which Robert Culp played an android); and as a consultant for The New Twilight Zone and Babylon 5. He also wrote the novella A Boy and His Dog, made into a 1975 cult movie, and the much-anthologized short story “‘Repent Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman.” But even if you’re not particularly interested in fantasy or sci-fi, Ellison’s views on publishing and film industries, with which he has had rocky relationships, as well as his role in the Civil Rights Movement, support for leftist causes in the 1960s and ’70s and friendships with rock and jazz musicians make him a fascinating subject. Nelson worked on the film since 1981 and, in addition to getting friends and associates to talk about Ellison, managed to get the irascible and often profane writer to talk about himself.

Bulletproof Salesman, directed by Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein, follows Fidelus Cloer, a German salesman of armored vehicles, as he enters Baghdad in the wake of occupation by US forces, about the time President Bush, in his “Mission Accomplished” photo-op, declared “the end of combat operations in Iraq.” Cloer more presciently saw it as “the end of the beginning of the war” and he was not discouraged when sales lagged as cost-conscious bureaucrats balked at his high-end product. A few months later improvised explosive devices energized the market. “Chaos creates opportunity,” Cloer notes, adding, “Terror creates demand.” But his sales were largely limited to government heads and business managers, who were more likely to be budget-conscious when ordering vehicles for their employees.

Full Battle Rattle, directed by Jesse Moss and Tony Gerber, documents a US Army training site in the Mojave Desert that simulates an Iraqi village, complete with US-based Iraqis portraying townspeople and US soldiers playing insurgents. US troops get a taste of what to expect in their Iraq tour. The film also examines the lives of the Iraqi refugees, some of whom are struggling to gain US citizenship, go to school and deal with family members they left behind.

They Killed Sister Dorothy, directed by Daniel Junge, documents the life and murder of missionary Sister Dorothy Stanger, who devoted her life to developing a sustainable agricultural lifestyle for indigenous rural Brazilians but ran afoul of ranchers and loggers who make a living off stripping the Brazilian rainforest.

Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, directed by Alex Gibney (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Taxi to the Dark Side), documents the writer who ruined a generation of journalists with his inimitable blend of fact, fiction, drugs and booze.

The Order of Myths, directed by Margaret Brown, examines the separate histories and social codes manifested in Mardi Gras celebrations that remain segregated in Mobile, Ala.—whose Mardi Gras predates New Orleans, by the way.

King of Texas, directed by René Pinnell and Claire Huie, is an affectionate but honest tribute to the too-brief career of Texas independent filmmaker Eagle Pennell (Pinnell’s uncle), who won acclaim with his debut feature, The Whole Shootin’ Match, in 1978. That film about two good ol’ boys on the make in Austin inspired Robert Redford to found the Sundance Film Festival to promote independent films. Pennell followed up with Last Night at the Alamo in 1984, but drugs and alcohol dissipated his genius and he alienated most of his friends before his death in 2002 at age 49. The documentary will accompany the long-awaited DVD of Shooting Match, which was lost for years before a print was found in a German TV network archive.

The festival also had two features about the drug trade in rural counties. In Cook County, written, directed and produced by David Pomes, Bump runs a meth lab in the kitchen of his house in the backwoods of rural East Texas, where he also looks after his 6-year-old daughter and his teenage nephew, when Bump’s brother returns after an absence of 2-1/2 years.

In Humboldt County, written and directed by Danny Jacobs and Darren Grodsky, a medical student takes time off and hitches a ride with a seductive women to the notorious marijuana-growing center of northern California, where he is dumped with her eccentric family living “off the grid” and cultivating a modest patch of the illicit herb. Families depicted in Cook and Humboldt counties have reason to be paranoid about outsiders, but it’s not giving too much away to reveal that pot farmers are still better neighbors than meth cooks.

From The Progressive Populist, May 1, 2008

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