I was only able to see two SLIFF films while in St. Louis last weekend, both screened in Edwardsville, IL at The Wildey Theatre, an old fashioned music and film venue with impeccable sound and projection. Aside from seeking out new experiences in film, one of my great passions is experiencing new venues, and the Wildey was an unexpected find in this regard (check out their upcoming music and film events here).
James is another one of those directors, like Malick or Cassavetes, who has managed to assert his mastery as an artist in his genre with a relatively small filmography. The three films pictured above are really at the core of what you need to know about his work. If you organize a triple feature, by the end you might be convinced that James could shoot someone reading the phone book and manage to come out with something compelling. Don't get me wrong--the subjects of his film are compelling enough as it is, but surely his adept hand in shooting and editing make the difference.
|The Wildey Theatre in Edwardsville, IL|
The St. Louis International Film Festival had put together a great weekend of documentary programming at the Wildey, including Edwardsville native A.J. Schnak's Kurt Cobain About a Son, Rockford, IL film maker Daniel Lindsey and T.J. Martin's football documentary Undefeated, and two excellent docs existing on opposite ends of the production and distribution spectrum (and created in opposite ends of the state) Bob Streit's Confidence Man and Steve James' The Interrupters. For Streit (an old friend and film/theatre collaborator of mine from Southern Illinois) the opportunity to screen at the SLIFF is huge, and Confidence Man, the story about a down-home band and it's internet scamming leader, is a perfect fit for the festival circuit.
Having lived in Southern Illinois between 1995 to 2001, I count myself among the number of music fans from that time and place who often wondered why Hugh DeNeal, the subject of Confidence Man, and his band The Woodbox Gang weren't bigger than they were; at the same time, I was among those that counted it as a blessing that their live displays of quirky, comedic dark bluegrass and multi-instrumental Americana were all our own, so to speak. For me, watching Confidence Man was literally an opportunity to glimpse re-contextualized clips of my past experiences with the band, and I was fully aware that my critical lens was being muddied by the wash of nostalgia that came along with the screening. I had some great times in the late 90's in SoIll, and The Woodbox Gang was one of the primary soundtracks to that experience. Beyond the nostalgia trip, what makes Confidence Man so intriguing is that Streit has so thoughtfully laid out the lyrical content of DeNeal and his band mates as an almost musical-like commentary to Hugh's haphazard journey into online high-risk investment scams. As DeNeal himself writes: "It's a confidence game/I'm a confidence man...genuine I am/honest I ain't/stab you in the back/smilin' like a saint." Streit wisely jumped at the chance to tell DeNeal's story, and has made a film that not only pays tribute to a great underground band, and will no doubt turn much of it's audience on to the music of the Gang, but also serves as an interesting reflection on our current economic times. Confidence Man is not the story of a big time scam, but rather the story of a small time musician perched on the verge of fame (Jason Ringenberg compares him in the film to Dylan and Van Zandt as a lyricist) who makes some hapless choices within an economic climate perched on the verge of collapse. The film is an endearing, hand-made portrait of The Woodbox Gang that evolves into telling DeNeal's story in some clever ways, given that Streit and editor/cinematographer Dan Johnson were limited to working collage-style in many sections of the film, pulling together fan video from many different formats into a narrative whole. This piece-meal presentation is one of the most charming aspects of the film, and Streit and Johnson merge much of the footage beautifully. The screening at the Wildey was followed by Streit answering some questions from the audience where he informed us that although Hugh DeNeal is now on parole and staying in a halfway house, coming out to play at the Wildey that night was not exactly within the boundaries of his release. Fortunately, we were treated to a rollickin' solo set of Woodbox Gang tunes performed by Gang-member, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist Alex Kirt, who played a number of fan favorites, including "God Box Wagon," and "Never Kissed a Girl."
As I noted in my last post , Confidence Man is a film that sits comfortably on the shelf alongside other great underground music docs such as The Devil and Daniel Johnston and Half-Japanese: The Band Who Would Be King. For fans of alt-country music who want to discover the sub-genre of "trashcan Americana" the film is a must. For more information on upcoming screenings and future distribution go to the Confidence Man Facebook Page, or check out Woodbox Gang fan Jello Biafra's label Alternative Tentacles for Woodbox Gang merch.
From the new and emerging documentary film makers of Southern Illinois to the area's legend of the genre, Steve James was honored at this year's SLIFF, receiving the Maysles Brothers Lifetime Achievement Award for Documentary Film Making (the award is named after the seminal figures in American documentary film, Albert and David Maysles, the directors of Salesman, Gimme Shelter, and Grey Gardens). The SLIFF also screened James's excellent 2002 film Stevie (a film Bob Streit reminded me was the "other film to come out of the Pomona, IL area"), and his new film, The Interrupters. James and Interrupters subject Ameena Matthews were in attendance at the Wildey screening of the film, and answered questions afterwards about the ongoing endeavors of the Chicago-based anti-violence group, as well as the difficulties of capturing such an intimate portrait in the tumultuous streets of Chicago.
Based on the book by Alex Kotlowitz (who I was fortunate enough to meet at the Chicago Film Fest this year, covered here), The Interrupters follows the CeaseFire organization of Chicago, a group dedicated to saving lives and stopping gang violence by developing strategies that "interrupt" the causes of violence. Though the film follows a number of dynamic and brave individuals over the course of a year, Ameena Matthews, daughter of notorious Chicago gang leader Jeff Fort, stands clearly as the star of the film. Matthews is a motivated and tireless community organizer who has clearly played a large part in trying to bring down the numbers of Chicago gang-related deaths in recent years. James captures Matthews interventions, which play like a kind of theatre for social change that would make Augusto Boal's head spin, with an intimacy that has become the trademark of James' work. Perhaps most known for having made one of the greatest American documentaries of the last couple of decades, the recently Criterion-released Hoop Dreams, James brings his compassionate and skilled storytelling abilities to subjects and issues that might seem familiar to the realm of television, but are so often presented with less attention to detail, and with a far less patient and humane lens. In this sense, not unlike Werner Herzog's recent Into the Abyss, The Interrupters stands in stark contrast to the kind of sensational preoccupations we have grown numb to in modern commercial media.
|Hugh DeNeal - Confidence Man|
|Alex Kirt of the Woodbox Gang|
|Ameena Matthews in Steve James' The Interrupters|
|Ameena Matthews and Steve James at The Wildey Theatre, 2011|
Congratulations to James on receiving the Maysles Award, and to Bob Streit for a triumphant entrance into the festival circuit. I look forward to seeing more from two great Southern Illinois artists.