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Film festival highlights artists, entertainers and political intrigue

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 16, 2012 - Beauty is Embarrassing: Wayne White is a true artist in that he can't stop making the stuff. From time to time, he figures out a way to make a living out of his obsessions. A high point came in the late 1980s and early ’90s, when White was one of the creative wizards behind the puppetry and the animated furniture on the "Pee-wee's Playhouse" TV show. 

The show was popular with children and a surprising number of adults who otherwise might not have been awake Saturday morning. White describes the Playhouse as "a downtown New York art project on TV." Moving it to LA was not necessarily a good idea, he opines.

 

More recently, White has discovered, somewhat to his surprise, that people will pay real money for vintage thrift shop paintings with White's pithy words superimposed on them. Sometimes the juxtaposition is funny -- the title "Failed Abstract Paintings of the Seventies" is laid across a limply realistic autumn scene. Sometimes it's just obscene.

White, a Tennessean who has ended up in LA, also does a cornpone vaudeville show, telling his life story and throwing in some Old Timey music and a bit of clog dancing. All these thing and more are featured in Neil Berkeley's engaging documentary, "Beauty is Embarrassing." In the film, White attributes his success, or maybe just his survival, to keeping busy and being married to artist Mimi Pond, best known for her graphic novels. The documentary is fun, and occasionally more than fun. The title, for example, comes from White, and it describes those rare, lucky moments when we are undone by beauty.

 -- Reviewed by Harper Barnes

Casualties of the State

 

A melancholy tone underlies the political thriller in which some very, very powerful people are killed. The light, the score, the measured dialogue have a heaviness that never lets up. Who are the "Casualties of the State"? The murder victims? Those who would suffer if their policies/plans were carried out? 

The questions of morality and decisions of life and death deserve the weighty tone, and the movie offers plenty for people to talk about after. I just wish some of the loose end could have been tied up, particularly with the fiancee of one of the main characters.

The St. Louis-shot movie (though the setting is D.C.) is the product of Alan Lamberg and Jeremy Cropf, both of whom have ties here. The story was originally Lamberg's and the two collaborated on the screenplay, with Cropf directing the film. (Disclaimer: I've never met Jeremy Cropf, but his father is a frequent contributor to the Beacon and I edit his Voices pieces.)

--Reviewed by Donna Korando

The Entertainers

 

This documentary focuses on six ragtime pianists vying to win the title of “World’s Greatest Old-Time Piano Player” in an annual competition held in Peoria, Illinois. Directors Michael Zimmer and Nick Holle take a straightforward approach that allows the audience ample time to get to know the musicians on a personal basis both before and during the competition. The tension builds as pianists bow out in the initial round and the semifinals before the winner is crowned.

It’s a stylistic approach that been used often, but it’s effective here thanks to the emotional openness of all the participants – from those competing onstage to their friends and family and the festival producers. Zimmer and Holle will appear at the screening, and three of the pianists from the competition will perform.

-- Reviewed by Terry Perkins

The Line King

You may have recently seen the work of St. Louis native Al Hirschfeld in his jazz-related exhibit on view at The Sheldon. If you want to really get to know the man who spoke volumes with a few strokes of a pen, “The Line King” is an up-close-and-personal introduction to the genius behind the paper and ink.

 

Nominated for an Academy Award for best documentary feature, “The Line King,” directed by Susan Warms Dryfoos, chronicles his early life in St. Louis and includes many interviews with Hirschfeld himself. It also features cameos by such folks as Lauren Bacall, Carol Channing, Robert Goulet and others from the heyday of this decades-long New York Times artist

Hirschfeld, who sat in his signature dentists’ chair drawing seven days a week, kept working until he died at the age of 99.

“The Line King,” presented in a free showing at the Sheldon Concert Hall, effectively paints Hirschfeld as more than just a caricature, as a talented human being who lived his passion every day.

--Reviewed by Nancy Fowler

Photographic Memory

In the past, I have not always been a fan of Ross McElwee's critically acclaimed autobiographical documentaries, finding them a tad too self absorbed. But his latest, "Photographic Memory," is a wonderful movie, so maybe I need to go back and take another look at "Sherman's March" (1986) and "Bright Leaves" (2003).

 

In "Photographic Memory," McElwee goes looking for his past, as he often does in his films, but this time his mission involves his desperate and seemingly unrequited love for another human being: his son, Adrian.

Once so bright and cheerful and loving, Adrian is on the cusp of his 20s and he glowers. The lad drinks and smokes dope and thinks maybe he doesn't need to go to college. Adrian spends most of his time doing creative things with digital devices. He is into videotaping extreme skiing. Let me amend that -- Adrian does stunts on skis while operating a video camera. McElwee is right -- it's pretty scary. On the other hand, the kid grew up with his father filming everything that moved, so you might say McElwee was partly responsible.

McElwee keeps trying to tell himself he was pretty much the same way at Adrian's age, but that doesn't stop him from worrying and, despite his best intentions, nagging Adrian to straighten up his act. Finally, McElwee decides to spur his empathy for his son by revisiting himself when he was Adrian's age. Luckily for the film and the filmmaker, that means spending several weeks in the little seaside town in Brittany where he worked as a photographer's assistant and had a fling with a French girl named Maud.

In the 1970s, when he first spotted Maud in a sidewalk cafe, she was stroking the ears of a rabbit. He wonders if he would have been so charmed if she had been texting on a cellphone -- one of the recurring themes of the movie is the wrenching change in our lives wrought by the shift from an analogue world to a digital one. McElwee, who is working with a digital camera for the first time, speaks wistfully of the palpable nature of film, its demand for craftsmanship and its sometimes welcome susceptibility to accident.

As he searches for Maud and the other figures from his past, McElwee muses with gentle wit on the changes time has wrought -- changes that, after all, are a part of his estrangement from Adrian. Every day, ironically enough, McElwee communicates with Adrian by Skype. There are some surprises, both in France and back home with Adrian. One thing leads to another, and slowly, McElwee remembers what it was like to be young and a little crazy.

 -- Reviewed by Harper Barnes

The Perfect Victim

Ruby, Charlene and Shirley are no longer held prisoner by abusive husbands. But when you meet them in “The Perfect Victim,” they’re in another kind of captivity: jail.

Each was found guilty of killing or arranging the killing of her husband following years of abuse that included broken bones, gang rape and being chained in the basement for nearly a week. But they weren’t allowed to use abuse as a defense in court -- it might have constituted motive, their attorneys said. They ended up facing the prospect of life in jail.

“I missed my whole life,” lamented one woman who didn’t get to see her children grow up.

Three decades into their jail terms, the Missouri Clemency Coalition began to fight for their release. Directed by Elizabeth Nowak, “The Perfect Victim” features two SLU law professors as part of the tenacious team working to free these women and others.

But does prior abuse constitute self-defense? Should killers go free? “The Perfect Victim,” showing at Washington University’s Brown School at 2:30 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 18, examines all sides of the issue but ultimately portrays the women as victims of not only their husbands but also the justice system.

--Reviewed by Nancy Fowler

Terry Perkins is a freelance writer based in St. Louis. He has written for the St. Louis Beacon since 2009. Terry's other writing credits in St. Louis include: the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the St. Louis American, the Riverfront Times, and St. Louis magazine. Nationally, Terry writes for DownBeat magazine, OxfordAmerican.org and RollingStone.com, among others.

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