2011 SLIFF: Day 2 and 3, Pruitt-Igoe leads the way | St. Louis Public Radio

2011 SLIFF: Day 2 and 3, Pruitt-Igoe leads the way

Nov 11, 2011

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 11, 2011 -  The Pruitt-Igoe Myth, Directed by Chad Freidrichs, 79 minutes/U.S.

3 p.m. at Brown Hall, Washington University

"The Pruitt-Igoe Myth" is the best kind of advocacy journalism: It has a strong point of view, but provides a broad enough picture and enough detailed information that viewers can come to their own conclusions.

Built in the early 1950s, virtually abandoned by the late 1960s, and famously destroyed by dynamite as a crime-fostering eyesore in the early 1970s, the Pruitt-Igoe housing project on the near North Side of St. Louis became a symbol of the failure of American public housing in the second half of the 20th century. The conventional wisdom was that the occupants -- poor people, most of them black, with rural backgrounds -- were unable to adapt to the environment of "modernist" high-rise apartments with elevators. Much of the blame for the failure of Pruitt-Igoe has been placed on the tenants themselves.

Using interviews with scholars and former residents, some of whom initially saw Pruitt-Igoe as the Promised Land, mixed with an amazing array of old film footage, the filmmakers effectively tell the story of Pruitt-Igoe and place it the context of the urban crisis that hit American cities in the decades after World War II. They do not shy away from such topics as the growth of gangs in black communities and a federal welfare program that virtually mandated the destruction of black families in the 1960s and 1970s.

The filmmakers argue effectively that Pruitt-Igoe was launched down the road of failure by drastic budget cuts for administration and maintenance, the abandonment of the housing project by whites, the deterioration of the urban tax base as many thousands of city dwellers moved to tax-subsidized homes in the suburbs, and the whole panoply of political and social factors that devastated older cities like St. Louis in the era.

- Reviewed by Harper Barnes | Special to the Beacon

Confidence Man: The Hugh Deneal Story

Directed by Robert Streit
92 minutes/U.S
8 P.M. at the Wildey, Edwardsville

From the evidence of this intriguing biographical documentary, Hugh DeNeal is, like a lot of musicians, a shy exhibitionist. When he is recounting the rather extraordinary series of events that led to modest underground musical fame and a stretch in Leavenworth federal prison, he looks at his feet and his hands and off to the side, anyplace but at the camera, and he kind of mumbles. But when he sings his often bitter alt-country songs, he spits and hurls the words at the audience like curses.

DeNeal and his musical buddies grew up playing bluegrass and rockabilly in small-town southern Illinois, which is culturally and geologically part of the Ozarks, and they eventually became regionally celebrated as the Woodbox Gang. Stylistically, the band plows the wide and fertile field between punk and bluegrass. DeNeal was the main songwriter and his songs, at their excoriating best, exhibit a relationship to the furious surrealism of early electric Dylan, although at times they can seem mighty self conscious. No matter what angry words DeNeal was hurling at the audience, the Woodbox Gang at its best appears to have been one hell of a bar band, as the documentary illustrates with plenty of old, scratchy musical footage.

The band achieved modest fame a few years ago, but DeNeal became addicted to the most ludicrous form of habitual gambling - scratch-off lottery tickets. Broke, he cooked up an equally ludicrous Internet Ponzi scheme that, for a while at least, had strangers sending him thousands of dollars a week. Needless to say, the bottom soon fell out and DeNeal ended up in prison. He just got out, and, depending on the state of his recently incarcerated nerves, he is expected to join members of the Woodbox Gang in a concert after the screening.

- Reviewed by Harper Barnes | Special to the Beacon

SUNDAY, NOV. 13Granito: How To Nail A Dictator

Directed by Pamela Yates
100 minutes/U.S
Noon in Brown Hall, Washington University

The fine documentary filmmaker Pamela Yates, who will receive the film festival's Women in Film Award, risked her life daily in Guatemala as a young woman to make "When the Mountain's Tremble," the powerful 1982 film about that country's brutal war on its own peasants. More than 20 years later, with the dictators and top commanders who had led the killing no longer in power, she was asked to help investigators in Guatemala and Spain bring to justice the men responsible for killing 200,000 Mayan peasants, in part so their fields could be seized by wealthy landowners.

In the finished film, and in thousands of feet of outtakes, she re-discovered interviews with some of the top men in the army and the dictatorship, as well as copious testimony by men and women who had witnessed massacres. As she digs deeper and deeper into her archives, she finds more and more information about the men behind the murder of innocents.

"Granito" is part historical document, part deeply personal memoir of a filmmaker whose subject (as well as goal) is socialjustice. The footage from the original movie and the outtakes, newly important, are riveting, as is the work of the archivists who are trying to establish exactly who was guilty of genocide in the 1980s. We learn, to no great surprise, that the murderous Guatemalan regime was able to stay in power in great part because of support from the American government.

- Reviewed by Harper Barnes | Special to the Beacon

The Interrupters

Directed by Steve James
125 minutes/U.S
1 p.m. at the Wildey theater, Edwardsville

The street-hardened men and women known as "violence interrupters" work the meanest streets of Chicago. Former gang members, some of them with long prison records, they have reclaimed their lives and are trying against long odds to stop the cycle of violence that engulfs urban neighborhoods.

"The Interrupters" is directed by Steve James ("Hoop Dreams"), who will receive the Maysles Brothers Lifetime Achievement Award for Documentary at the festival.The focus of the movie is on three violence interrupters: a black man, a black woman and a Hispanic man, all former gang members. (The woman, Ameena Matthews, the daughter of a notorious Chicago gang leader, is a charismatic blend of street toughness and empathy. Matthews, who will join James for the post-screening discussion, emerges by force of personality as the star of the movie.)

Although dramatically uneven, "The Interrupters" is remarkable as a pure work of cinema verite, exposing at a chillingly intimate level the hopelessness and anger in a city where, at one point during the filming, 20 people were shot in a single night. In neighborhoods where the wrong word or glance can lead to murder, James filmed for more than 300 hours over 14 months, so skillfully that gang members barely seemed to notice he was there.

At the end, the film seems to deliver an honest assessment of the battle against urban youth violence -it can only be won by dedicated men and women, and their victories will only come a few human beings at a time.

- Reviewed by Harper Barnes | Special to the Beacon

Incessant Visions: Letters From an Architect

Directed by Duki Dror
71 minutes | Israel
3 p.m. Nov. 13, COCA

Soon after the end of the World War II, in what must be regarded as an act not only of optimism but of defiant courage, members of Congregation B'nai Amoona in St. Louis commissioned the great architect Erich Mendelsohn to design a synagogue for them.

A Jew, an artist and an intellectual, Mendelsohn fled Germany, Holland, the United Kingdom and even Palestine to escape almost certain death by the Nazis. He ended up in 1945 in America. He settled in San Francisco, where he died in 1953.

The connection between the St. Louis congregation and him was Erwin V. Weichmann. As a young architect, Mendelsohn had designed a store for him, in what was then Silesia.

When the time came to build a new house of worship for B'nai Amoona - the children of faith - Weichmann (who changed his name to Winston) suggested Mendelsohn. Although the synagogue's members did not universally embrace the choice, we must thank those who approved of this radically modern building. Their legacy is the building at 524 Trinity Avenue in University City.

On Sunday (Nov. 13) at 3 p.m., in a marvelously appropriate selection, a movie called "Incessant Visions" will be shown in the synagogue, now art center, building. The visionary founders of the Center of Cultural Arts (COCA) saved the edifice, unmistakably Mendelsohnian, from probable destruction. It has been well used as a temple of learning and a vessel of the arts.

The movie is a braid of three complex skeins: architecture, culture and personal biography. The latter is eloquently, poignantly addressed in the autobiographical words of Mendelsohn's wife, the beautiful, exquisitely articulate cellist Louise Maas Mendelsohn, and through letters written by her and Mendelsohn.

The culture - well, the culture of Europe in the mid-20th century, especially as it affected intellectuals, avant-garde artists and Jews - is always and ever with us.

Mendelsohn's buildings, and his drawings and his resolute commitment to the spirit and the manifestation of the new, give definition to the word genius.

Giants of architecture tend toward grandiosity; forever, it seems, they regard their individual visions as the ones that will reinvent, purify, glorify and bring beauty and impose rationality on the chaos that distinguishes our world. Mendelsohn was no exception. As Louise Mendelsohn explains, he wanted to control everything he touched, including her. He was, of course, confounded constantly in ways both trivial and cataclysmic.

"Incessant Visions," both the title of the movie and a profound condition of Mendelsohn's existence, is an affecting and telling documentary, a story of bravery, genius, infidelity, triumphs and tragedy.

I hope many will make time for Duki Dror's fine picture. Once you see the show, you may wonder why he did not include the B'nai Amoona-COCA building is in the film. My guess is because, in the inventory of works by Mendelsohn, it is problematical. His "incessant vision" of it was on a Missouri hillside rather than an urban street corner.

No matter. B'nai Amoona-COCA survives, and remains to enrich our regional treasury. The film provides a sweeping look at many other Mendelsohn buildings standing and lost. Filmed through a sheer veil of melancholy, it accomplishes what art is meant to, and that is to touch our souls and animate our intellects, while revealing to us worlds that for good and ill surround us and exist as well within ourselves.

-- Robert W. Duffy, Beacon Associate Editor

Pig

Directed by Henry Barrial, U.S.
90 minutes / United States
1:30 p.m., Tivoli

He wakes up with a start in the desert with a black bag over his head and his hands tied behind his back.

Who is he? He doesn't know. Why is he there? He doesn't know. Shaken by occasional but mysterious flashbacks, he tells Isabel (Heather Ankeny), the young widow who rescued him, "I don't remember what I remember."

With the thinnest of clues -- a name in his pocket and a notebook he is filling with observations and fragments of memory -- the two head to California to discover his identity.

The man finds his landlord who lets him into his old apartment, but that only deepens the puzzle as "Justin" (Rudolf Martin) feels even more disoriented among what should be his familiar possessions. Who is he? He begins to get conflicting versions of his identity. Whom can he trust? Anyone?

Is his amnesia a blessing or a punishment?

A spare, seemingly straightforward, almost clinical film, "Pig" can't quite resolve those existential dilemmas. But for those willing to be patient, "Pig" does bring home the bacon by providing a nifty, novel explanation to the mystery -- at least for the audience.

-- Susan Hegger, issues and politics editor

Nov. 12

Tivoli

  • Bubba Moon Face 11 a.m.
  • The Ugly Duckling noon
  • Fort McCoy 1:30 p.m.
  • Sam Steele and the Crystal Chalice 1:45 p.m.
  • The Hammer 4:15 p.m.
  • Goon 4:30 p.m.
  • Shame 6:45 p.m.
  • Radio Free Albemuth 7 p.m.
  • Codepedent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same 9 p.m.

Plaza Frontenac

  • Little Sparrows noon
  • Hermano 1 p.m.
  • Dying to do Letterman 2:15 p.m.
  • Norwegian Wood 3:15 p.m.
  • The Pill 5 p.m.
  • We Need to Talk About Kevin 6 p.m.
  • Outrage 8:30 p.m.
  • Miss Representation 7 p.m.
  • Drei (3) 9:45 p.m.

Washington University

  • Give a Damn? noon
  • The Pruitt-Igoe Myth 3 p.m.
  • The Family Talk 6 p.m.
  • A People Uncounted 8:30 p.m.

Webster University

  • YERT: Your Environmental Road Trip 3 p.m.
  • Adventures in Plymptoons 5 p.m.
  • The Wildcat 8 p.m.

Wildey

  • A Cat in Paris 1 p.m.
  • The Last Mountain 3 p.m.
  • Kurt Cobain About a Son 5:30 p.m.
  • Confidence Man 8 p.m.

Nov. 13

Tivoli

  • Family Shorts 12:30
  • Pig 1:30 p.m.
  • Wish me Away 2:30 p.m.
  • Joint Body 4 p.m.
  • Suddenly, The Film 5:30 p.m.
  • Bedlam Street 6:30 p.m.
  • I Melt With You 8 p.m.
  • Shorts 3: Animated 1 9:30 p.m.

Plaza Frontenac

  • Burke and Hare 12:30 p.m.
  • Dooman River 1:15 p.m.
  • David 2:30 p.m.
  • Simple Simon 3:30 p.m.
  • Fort McCoy 4:45 p.m.
  • In Darkness 5:30 p.m.
  • Tyrannosaur 7:30 p.m.
  • Empire of Silver 8:30 p.m.
  • Cirkus Columbia 9:30 p.m.

Washington University

  • Granito noon
  • My So-Called Enemy 3 p.m.
  • Stevie 6 p.m.

Webster University

  • World on a Wire 6:30 p.m.
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Wildey

  • The Interrupters 1 p.m.
  • YERT: Your Environmental Road Trip 4:30 p.m.
  • Undefeated 7:30 p.m.

Coca

  • Incessant Visions 3 p.m.
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Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis

  • The Rite 7 p.m.