(can't stop them from doin' what it is they do.)
Continuing on with my savage, metaphoric bastardization of this great nation we all live and breathe and shit and sleep in, I have, for this handy fourth installment, chosen to zoom my mental lens in on five films mashing salt of the earth types (good, bad and well beyond ugly) up with the substantial place they occupy in their given states of residence. We will test moral waters, walk a crooked path with Jesus and fight the good fight as bread and butter folks cross mountains, scour the belly of mother earth and even stalk beasts of myth hoping to flush them out into cold reality.
Let's touch down first in the place that both the fictional Dorthy Gale and the very real William S. Burroughs once called home.
In recent memory, no one member of its population has the 'Sunflower State' been given less to boast about then the one Reverend Fred Phelps. Phelps is the prolifically hateful guiding force behind the Topeka based Westboro Baptist Church. Subscribing diligently to severely outdated Calvinist principles and preaching his thick headed brand of cruel, old god doctrine to a congregation of , mostly, his own family members, Phelps has worked the majority of his life at battling the filth of the earth and securing his place at the high ranks of an afterlife to be made up exclusively of a limited company of ultra-righteous brethren.
The Westboro posse's greatest contribution to 'can you believe that shit' style popular culture has come by way of a succession of wholly inappropriate protests of the funerals of various American soldiers and homosexuals, most infamously that Mathew Shepard, a Wyoming collage student who committed the deplorable crime of not being straight. Westboro protests are punctuated by a plethora of loud and obnoxious pickets signs that cover the full spectrum of unapologetic hate and disdain with oddly hypnotic abandon. The majority of all this could inspire knee-jerk laughter care the epic level of cold ignorance employed, then one is reminded that these bible bashing social terrorists really, REALLY believe this shit with all their (dare I say) hearts.
The antics of the Westboro knuckle draggers and their lanky, menacing front man Fred serve as the topic of a concise little number titled 'Fall From Grace'. The director, K. Ryan Jones gained access to the inner workings of the Westboro/Phelps complex and has scored interview time with most of the principal players, most significantly big Fred himself. The film does its best to try and dredge up the true demon behind the doings, but, for the most part, the Phelps family sports a decent poker face and adheres to its belief system with a wide fascist grin. Ole Fred displays a basic level of tolerance for the young punk behind the camera, but the whole thing feels smothered beneath a facade of meticulously managed fear. No one person in this family can truly manage a sane and sober mindset, not with the way they've been reared. The film even includes input (via telephone interviews) with two of the Phelps children who have long detached themselves from the madness and share potent details of abuse born of poorly misdirected anger issues that have long gone unaddressed. The Phelps saga is one of incredible, head scratching and very primitive delusion. It's a shocking waste of too many lives and a stark embarrassment in a low-key state mostly shrugged off as being made up of little more than farms, fields and flat spaces.
'Fall From Grace' is a worthy, if not landmark, documentary that can be culled from Netflix or this site here-fallfromgracemovie.net
In the early 70s, a young and zealous filmmaker by the name of Barbra Kopple embedded herself deep in a brassy and ultimately violent standoff between nearly 200 coal miners and the thug level bullies representing the best interests of the big corporate entity that would never dain to walk in their shoes. The resulting film, 'Harlan County U.S.A.', charts the intense struggle of the strike from the frontline, with Kopple and her crew getting their hands way more than dirty and sweaty in the process.
Kopple's film, one of the first of its fashion to garner a substantial release (in the less glamorous, pre-Michael Moore world) works as an addictive, grunt level portrait of working class dog soldiers in a brutal war against a soulless disregard for basic human rights. The people of this Harlan County place (located at the far south-east portion of the KY) are a collective of amazing, hard faced country souls who have weathered ungodly hours, black lung, bent backs and lackluster wages in order to scrape by and live another day in rural hell. Their townships are of the most rickety and marginal fashion. No running water, garbage and plentiful rust raped reminders of how close to the bottom this community really is.
To wrap her camera around this elephantine struggle between have alls and have nots, Kopple and co toiled long hours for time on end, digesting the picket lines, court room drama, fierce pride and recollection of mining history (often brutal) and even a field trip style picket in Manhattan to spread the word to Wall Street stockholders, to build an epic stockpile of footage (to wit-not an anomaly for a documentary project) with which to sculpt a film that would live on to first win itself an Oscar (in 1976) and later a place in the National Film Registry (a segment of the Library of Congress). This director had her skills honed putting down alongside the Brothers Maysles and gleaned from them an ample respect for the particulars of persona and place. 'Harlan County U.S.A.' thrives off the richness of character in these rough but honest working folk and their powerful desire to set things to right.
The Criterion Collection (and they tend to do right by a lot of fine films) has the best possible edition of this thing on DVD (spine # 334, look it up at criterion.com) that slaps on outtakes, interviews, commentary and even a reissue panel from the Sundance Film Fest (circa-2005) featuring Kopple and a still vocal Roger Ebert. Another classic to add to the list, and the list is ever growing.
Sticking to the countryside and moving up and over a ways-Montana.
A strange little left field piece of work called 'Sweetgrass' seeks to bring the untrained eye in touch with the laborious practice of prepping and herding a mass of, sometimes unruly, sheep from point A-the ranch to point B-the grazing pasture, all via the less than forgiving Absaroka-Beartooth mountains (a mass of wild natural abandon that sprawls some 900,000 + acres, even bleeding over into neighboring 'frontier' state Wyoming).
The film tags along behind a small collection of all-pro ranchers as they enact the deed of pushing and prodding a mass of wholly bastards up and through the impressive terrain all the while balancing workman like resolution with occasional lapses into frustration (most deliciously evidenced in a very profane outburst played out against one of the film's many sumptuous landscapes shots.
'Sweetgrass' is the feature result of husband/wife filmmaking tandem Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Ilisa Barbash devoting a reported eight or so years studying, learning and documenting this nearly outdated and romantic throwback industry of cowboys making their way, big country style. The pair relate this ambitious endeavor by way of long, dreamy studies of the sheer scope of these 'Big Sky' spaces, takes that are (thankfully) bereft of the cumbersome inclusion of some narrator flooding your ears with the painfully obvious and/or trite. 'Sweetgrass' is a blend of cool, hypnotic dream state and hard, rigorous slice-of-life truth. The film waivers between the punch in/punch out mundaity attributed to getting a job done (cowboys banter, tell hick savvy jokes, doze off mid day) to the blunt facts of life (sheep giving sloppy, juicy birth, calves being pruned and tagged), all unblinkingly processed through the video camera eye.
It should come as no real surprise that Castaing-Taylor is a Harvard based Professor specializing in Anthropology and Social Sciences, he has an obvious affinity for cultural process and the little human details that give flesh and blood vibrancy to an act that would, otherwise, read as soulless and mechanical. He also know how to photograph those big open Montana expanses. sweetgrassthemovie.com
Speaking of Montana, you all remember that one 'weird' guy, David Lynch? Well he sites Missoula, the states' second largest city, as his birthplace. Now, while most folks fondly recall Lynch as the gleefully warped brain-trust behind such ready made eccentricities as 'Blue Velvet' and the short lived, small screen phenom 'Twin Peaks', I prefer to instead to do a quick run through of the true curio of his filmography, the G-Rated, Walt Disney distributed and Iowa based 'The Straight Story'.
The, based on a true, story goes like this, Alvin Straight (Richard Farnsworth) is a twilight era old-timer who has just received word that his long estranged brother, Lyle, as come under ill health. Hoping to amend long standing bad blood and maybe even come to terms with his own very immediate mortality in the process, Alvin (legally blind and sporting duel crutches) makes haste on a retro John Deere riding lawn mower, under speech impeded protest from his daughter Rose (Sissy Spacek) from his root down in small scale Laurens, Iowa all the way east and up a fair bit to his brother's shack in Mt. Zion, Wisconsin (more on THAT state in a future issue). It's the journey between that fills out the near two hours that encompass this charming, philosophic and breezy slice of Lynch-Lite. En route toward his fated fraternal reconciliation, Alvin trades flavor, favors and wisdom with folks from all walks along the green, farm friendly sprawl of the thick of the corn belt.
'The Straight Story' marked a sharp measure of departure for Lynch in that it gained him accolades and attention from a whole different demographic then his patented film school hipster fan base. Farnsworth was Oscar nominated and most critics refrained from picking it apart. Though this film may never earn cult cred on par with the 'Eraserheads' and 'Mulholland Drives' that made and maintained his reputation, it still clings to several key aesthetic and thematic Lynch traits. The frame is still painted with striking and even rather poetic images, with special attention given to the vast, brooding properties of darkness and the running score is all haunting-romantic, as is the norm with Angelo Badalamenti on board. Quirky he may be, but David Lynch is a genuine film (as art) maker, now if only he can set aside that Transcendental Meditation bullshit and get on with the cinema!
Well, center-south in the state, around Scioto County seat Portsmouth, reside two infectiously driven, fully skewered mindsets who have forged a friendship, pastime and pursuit of dreams based entirely around the steadfast conviction that Bigfoots (not just one, mind you) do exist and are at plentiful large in the woods and countrysides of their immediate area. Wayne Burton and Dallas Gilbert have spent years contrasting the fairly bleak circumstances they subsist in (poor employment options and a dire lack of cultural stimuli) by attempting to position themselves as ambassadors and scholars of this whole Bigfoot mythology that (at least for some people) is just begging to be proven as fact.
The movie, entitled 'Not Your Typical Bigfoot Movie', running just above an hour and slapped together on the HD low-end by someone named Jay Delaney, works better as a charming examination of two old pals who refuse to surrender their chief passion, regardless the cost. Think of it as lesser variant on the likes of that one 'Anvil' movie ('The Story of Anvil') with the guitars and other rock trinkets supplanted by largely unseen hairy man beasts (though not for lack of vague, unfocused snapshots). These determined gents weather all manner of mockery and false hope to steady their course and the odd humanity on display as a direct result is what informs the film away from just being another geek-show farce where the dip shit bumpkins serve largely as easy fodder for drunken ridicule (not that I've ever been guilty of indulging as such). Do the boys ever actually land proof of their elusive grand prize? For all their ramblings and religiously adhered to backwoods wanderings, the truth remains a matter of faith, a shadow captured by camera more then once but never rising above the many common prejudices of individual interpretation.
'Not Your Typical Bigfoot Movie' is up for grabs on DVD care the oddball distributor Oscilloscope Laboratories (www.oscilloscope.net) or, more to the point, one can visit the real deal-notyourtypicalbigfootmovie.com which will link you up to all manner of stuff, including Dallas and Wayne's own website and a even a youtube channel for those who need to see it all (relatively speaking).
Seek and find, people.