Monday, April 19, 2010

Atlanta Film Festival report No. 2: Of history real and imaginary, and all very funny

Actually, before I get into any of that today, a bit of leftover business. Director CB Hackworth has asked me to pass along that copies of the engaging documentary "Crossing in St. Augustine" can be purchased here. I reviewed the movie in full yesterday, but just to sum up, for a look at a sordid chapter in American history - specifically what went down in St. Augustine, Fla., in 1964 - which I knew nothing about before watching the flick, I recommend this doco very highly.

OK, onto the new stuff. Quick, think of the funniest movies you've ever seen. Four come to mind for me, and they're pretty much tied: "Super Troopers" (yes, really), "Duck Soup", "Office Space" and "This is Spinal Tap."

The last one falls into the category of "mockumentary," a genre I thought had been exhausted by now in the work of Christopher Guest and others, but I found out Saturday afternoon at the Atlanta Film Festival that I was wrong (it's OK, it's happened a few times before.) Because I can submit to you without exaggeration that writer/director Wendy Jo Cohen's "The Battle of Pussy Willow Creek" is as good as Guest's best work ("Best In Show", in my book) and almost on a par with "Tap" itself. And again, yes really.

If you're gonna make a comedy about the Civil War, first of all, good luck, and second of all, one thing you definitely have to have is false earnestness, and Cohen has this in spades, as do the various actors who play the "expert" talking heads. I won't spoil too much of the funny, because the jokes fly here about as fast as they do on an episode of "Family Guy," and thankfully hit their targets a whole lot more often, but here's a sample: A French scholar commenting on Britain's secret involvement on the South side, "comment vous dites, they were tired of being your bitch."

It's all pretty much that funny, but I'm getting ahead of myself. The movie itself wisely focuses on the life stories of four members of the oft-forgotten "Rhode Island 13th," a union regiment who would lead the charge in the titular key battle: Johnathan Franklin Hale, who was sent to West Point by his father to toughen him up after he had been largely raised by his mother and many sisters, and finds he certainly enjoys the company of so many men; Li Shao-Zu, a Chinaman who is already in his 70s when he joins the Union campaign, of course, as the laundry man; Elijah Swan, a mixed race former slave who, to the great benefit of his fellow soldiers, develops into one of the first "black nerds"; and Rowena Oaks, whose woeful tale is best summed-up with the words "one-armed whore," who's only out for revenge on her pimp. Not the most battle-ready battalion, but certainly one that's perfect for generating laughs.

And it's the attention to faux detail in telling their stories that makes Cohen's movie work so well. From the letters from the battlefield to period ditties like "The Whore's Lament," it all really does take on the air of something - as the credits claim - that could have been made by "Grace Burns," a relative of Ken Burns.

The biggest joke of all, however, and there really as many good ones as I promise, comes when Cohen films the actual "battle" scenes, which is actually just her moving her camera every whichaway over an empty battlefield. I probably garnered several stares, because I practically rolled over laughing at this dig at my single-biggest movie pet peeve, the inability of directors like Paul Greengrass (though he's hardly the sole offender) to hold their cameras still for more than a few seconds at a time.

If you're anywhere near Atlanta, I highly recommend going to see "The Battle of Pussy Willow Creek" when it screens for the second time at the Atlanta Film Festival at 12:20 Tuesday at the Landmark Midtown Cinema. To learn more, click here. Enjoy the trailer for the movie I have to bet will win both the jury and audience awards in the feature category, and then stick around for a look at "Alley Pat: The Music is Recorded," which I think will do the same for documentaries.

Director Tom Roche's "Alley Pat: The Music is Recorded" is certainly the very definition of the way-overused phrase "labor of love," since the video editor worked on it for eight years and will probably only be able to show it publicly very few times (more on that later.)

What his long years of toil have produced is a portrait of longtime Atlanta DJ James "Alley Pat" Patrick that entertains as much as it enlightens about a life very well lived. Patrick, who worked at various radio stations around Atlanta beginning in 1951 or so, earned his nickname both by the alley blues that dominated his shows and for the alley talk that made his shows so infectious (I can only attest to that via the movie, since I had admittedly never heard of him until watching Roche's flick.)

Though Roche enjoyed the participation of many people who worked with Patrick through the years, he wisely lets the movie be dominated by choice cuts from Alley Pat's career on the air, which were unfailingly funny. He was a true pioneer in the arena of "shock jock" talk, but unlike the clowns who clog up the airwaves nowadays, he was never mean-spirited. The best cuts are indeed commercials he made for local businesses in which he would almost always slag the establishment he was supposed to be plugging, but in a way that was so funny the advertisers would still keep coming back.

Roche keeps things brisk and intersperses it with many of the great tunes that Alley Pat played through the years, heavy on John Lee Hooker and, of course, Ray Charles. It was only in the Q&A afterward that I learned the (and I can't remember the technical term for it) scale showing how often Alley Pat just blew out the volume way beyond reasonable levels was actually measuring what we were seeing and hearing on screen. Very clever touch.

I won't go on any more about this extremely engaging documentary for this reason: Due to the copyright laws involving the music, Roche said he will never be able to release this on DVD, and will in fact only be screening it one more time, some time later this summer at the Auburn Avenue Research Library (I'm probably getting the name of that wrong, but forgive me). Would it have been wiser to leave the music out? Surely, but the movie wouldn't have been nearly as entertaining.

After the movie, Roche got a well-deserved round of applause, but that paled in comparison to what came next: In one of those moments that can only happen at the Atlanta Film Festival, the place erupted as 91-year-old Alley Pat himself ambled up to the front of the theater. True to form, he used at least two words you never use in public (or best in private either) even though he only spoke for a few moments. He was greeted by people who had been listening to him through the years, and even one grateful Atlanta civil rights activist who he had bailed out of jail during his stint as a bondsman. Just a magical end to a perfect day.

I'll leave you with clip of Alley Pat speaking at the funeral of his very good friend Hosea Williams, a longer version of which wraps up Roche's movie. Even in this short form, it really captures the spirit of the man. Enjoy, and have a perfectly passable Monday. Peace out.


Bob said...

I'll keep an eye out for "The Battle of Pussy Willow Creek" in case it plays at SIFF.

Reel Fanatic said...

If it does, Bob, I guarantee you will love it

Debbie said...

Saw it at SLIFF - St. Louis - and I totally agree. There was a really large audience and they were cracking up with laughter. Beautifully made film.

Anonymous said...

Saw it there in Atlanta...great response from the audience....such a smart, funny movie!