Saturday, September 3, 2011

Weaving Through Debris.

(originally published in the September 2011 issue of The Scene)

Winding it all down to the wire, I find myself left with a lucky 13 states awaiting proper marriage with a suitable cinematic partner. It’s getting harder to find good lovin’ these days and in the movie/geographic matchmaking scene, it’s hardly any better.

But, I digress, let’s set to business and open it all up with a pair of impossibly dated time capsules wedding the multifaceted quirks of human behavior and mannerisms to their immediate surroundings. Both the ambitious and reverently revealing Middletown (for Indiana) and the playfully stupid Heavy Metal Parking Lot (for Maryland) address their chosen subjects with a strict anthropological objectivity, the goal is simply to share a slice of the American pie with as wide an onlooking crowd as possible.

Shepherded over by its creator, Peter Davis (the mind also behind the essential to watch, Oscar-adorned Vietnam war dissection Hearts and Minds) Middletown takes precious time to meticulously investigate the various, wide-ranging particulars of the populace of Muncie, Indiana. Leapfrogging across six separate episodes (five of which actually made airdates on PBS before unwarranted yet inevitable controversy set in) the project comes as close as any in recent memory to capturing the exact pulse of both a city and, in turn, a specific region.

Nestled snug to the east of the state (and sporting a head count roughly comparable to our so beloved Appleton), Muncie fits right and tight under the basic, presumed guidelines of small scale, Bible-belt all Americana. I imagine it stands today much the same as it did in the later 1970s when this program was assembled.
Taking its overlaying cue (and title) from a 1929 publication Middletown: A Study In Contemporary American Culture by esteemed scholars Robert and Helen Lynd, this Middletown digests its subject matter and reorganizes it into its six handy sub-sections. Said films (each helmed by a different party, including Peter Davis himself) focus with separate yet equal objectivity on things political (The Campaign), spiritual (Community of Praise), marital (Second Time Around) and athletic (The Big Game, and it’s basketball, as is to be expected in the Hoosier state) and the pains of youth and the lack there of.

The epic scale and the intimate detail hold hands productively throughout as the disparate citizens of this chosen hamlet extend their lives out in full for the camera eye. Standouts in this rather massive, archival undertaking include a gregarious Irish politico, an ex-marine turned Shakey’s Pizza proprietor and even a collective of lippy high school seniors in full rebellion mode (to be seen in the series closer Seventeen, which piles on enough curse words and touchy themes and ideas as to instigate an uproar and subsequent banning from being aired back in its day).

The success of this work as a whole is care the way it both provides its potential audience with an unsparing insight into a specific community’s pros and cons and how it manages to liken them to much of our own. In a way, Middletown serves as a mirror held up to anyone who chooses to pay it any mind. If one were to attempt a similar project in a different locale in our present here and now, sure the trivia of fashion and hip technology would prove markedly altered and the inevitable given regional inflections would seep through (plus, there would be far less smoking, everybody seems to be cigarette dependent in this damn thing!) but the essentials of the social, financial and emotional aspects of American living have remained largely a constant. Catch it all at

Likewise, albeit on a far more compact, bootleg and some might say downright moronic scale is the mid-80s, Maryland/D.C. area relic Heavy Metal Parking Lot.

Now this baby began as a one-off public access short stunt by two local dudes (John Heyn and Jeff Krulik) seeking to share, in passing, the delirious/drunken celebratory silliness that is the tailgating sub-culture collecting outside a Judas Priest gig somewhere called Largo, Maryland. What came soon after was a steady building cult phenomena born of copious tape trading and rock star endorsement (it was reportedly a tour bus staple of a pre-martyrdom era Kurt Cobain and that one little folk band he played in) and, ultimately, the well-dressed out DVD release I’m now using as reference (get yours off the website which goes a long way to demystify the legacy of the whole thing and give it a proper historic context.

What essentially consists of about 16 minutes or so of loud, inebriated (and often shirtless) working class dopers, basement rockers, big hair bitches and all around chuggerheads attains a bit of quasi-nostalgic legitimacy by way of numerous sequels, homages and exhaustive “Where are they now?” updates (they even managed to track down the elusive Zebra-Boy! If you have no idea who I am speaking of, watch the film, you can’t miss him).

I do realize the state-based significance of both John Waters and Barry Levinson, but nothing has ever sold me so deeply on Maryland as this retarded little work of art. I’m telling the lot of you now, if it is deep and insightful reportage you seek, if it is lasting mental nutrition you are lacking then this is certainly the place to look for...the exact opposite.

On to more modern meditations and the pristine Virginia-based farmland of What Remains. This location (near Lexington) serves as the living, loving and working space of the pro shutterbug Sally Mann. Mann, best known for her hot button collection of portraits and other captures involving her three children titled Immediate Family (which contained images that fell under the strict designation of child pornography care the religious right), subscribes to a philosophy of finding the appropriate muse within her familiar surroundings. First, she milks her family members for photographic effect (the mostly black and white prints are often glorious) and then moves with gradual progression toward the landscapes that encircle her home. She shoots in large format (film, remember that shit?) and imprints her work with a soul and an openness to the randomness of life or, “the angel of uncertainty” as she dubs it.

Her work addresses the fragility of existence (a trait possibly influenced by her father’s preoccupation with death). The peak exemplification of this comes when she pays visit to a University of Tennessee-based forensic study area and is allowed to shoot various decaying corpses. The set up might seem unsettling but the resulting photos hold an irrefutable power.

We follow Mann through a multitude of highs and lows, from the everyday living variety to the convoluted process of snagging gallery support. A man by the name of Steven Cantor had previously covered the crafting of Mann’s notorious Immediate Family project back in 1990 (a resulting short film, Blood Ties is part of this picture’s bonus materials) and again provides the guiding eye that allows the audience to step inside Sally Mann’s space and observe for a cool 80 minutes. What Cantor does here set up an open mic for Mann’s ample voice, both as an incredibly gifted, born photographer and as a strong-willed woman who makes her way through her life as she sees fit.

Being as I am a wanna be camera nerd my own damn self, I managed to cull many informative tidbits in relation to this wonderful art form and certain methods that I may wish to emulate and apply to my own approach to imagemaking. Thus, What Remains stands as both a compelling biographic portrait and as an information well for those seeking to learn and/or polish their “eye,” so to speak. (

Lastly, we slap this whole uneven thing upward to our nation’s very first state.

I Can See You marks yet another challenging entry from the New York-based, East Coast-minded mini-studio Glass Eye Pix. Founded in 1985 in good faith by actor/writer/director Larry Fessenden, this outfit has steadily produced some rather striking pictures. Key works of note include Ti West’s efforts The House of the Devil and The Innkeepers and Jim Mickle’s more ambitious than it can afford to be vampire opus Stakeland. They also found the time to fund this severely under the radar ditty from Graham Reznick and it’s a fitting fable for Delaware.

It all comes together so simple, a trio of upstart Big Apple ad campaigners abscond themselves to the deep woods to camp, frolic, snag photos and brainstorm ideas in prep for an impending big dog client. All progresses smooth and tidy I suppose as the lads wander and drink some with various fellow campers and even find the time for a little free-spirited skinny dipping. Soon, however, a fattening level of menace creeps into play and the tone of each passing situation shifts into a sort of collision of David Lynch savvy shadow mystery and Stan Brakhage abstract experimentation.

The whole thing is pieced together with an admirable level of skill and the story feeds its three leads (including one eerily Conan O’ Brian-looking sad sack who basically fills the obnoxious blowhard role all too well) with a heady succession of surprises and ultimately sets them on a course with things better left seen than explained. The fear of the unknown and all that, you dig? Our founding fathers would be so proud. There’s probably still a smattering of their tortured souls wandering them diabolical Delaware forests, creepy. (

And one more thing.....JOHN CARPENTER’S THE WARD.

After flirting with a near decade of non-activity, save a pair of underwhelming Masters of Horror episodes, the frail old gentleman who blessed us with Escape From New York, The Thing and several other major genre pieces (say, what’s the one with that masked dude knifing people?) is back to making movie babies and the first result is, well, meh.

This time out Carpenter follows the fateful trials of a troubled lass (the admittedly fetching Amber Heard), who is placed in a nuthouse for gals after she is found oblivious in front of a burning farm house. The script then finds various ways for our lovely young anti-heroine to clash with staff and inmates and wander dark hallways so that she may cross paths with a number of ghostly cliches.

It all plods along with unremarkable abandon toward yet another one of those twist endings you’ll never see coming unless you’ve already seen a lot of movies with twist endings before. In all good truth, I have seen much worse from an upper shelf genre brand name (i.e. Wes Craven’s woeful My Soul To Take), but that hardly excuses the middling vibe that embodies this thing. Oh well, welcome back John and better luck next time.

Outta words, outta time.