Part 2 of our extended coverage of the Seattle International Film Festival, one of the top festivals in North America since 1976. This year’s festival ran from May 19 through June 12.
As a child, an Evel Knievel stunt doll—complete with wind-up motorcycle—was among my most cherished possessions. It didn’t work very well, wobbling unevenly and toppling onto the sidewalk after sputtering forward a few miserable feet. But perhaps that was the point. Evel himself didn’t always hit the mark during his legendary jumps, resulting in a Guinness Book World Record for “Most Broken Bones in a Lifetime” (433, to be exact). It didn’t matter that the toy was a dud. Being Evel director Daniel Junge explains it best, stating, “Age-wise, you were right there in the ‘sweet spot’ where all kids loved Evel. Older people thought he was a crackpot. Younger people ask, ‘Did he even exist? I thought he was a comic book hero.’”
The screens of this year’s Seattle International Film Festival reflected images of flawed heroes. Being Evel, one of SIFF’s most potent examples, played alongside films showing both the extraordinary achievements and human failings of computer legend Steve Jobs, Black Panther leader Huey Newton, two exploitation film gurus from Israel, and one-time Guns ‘n Roses bassist Duff McKagan. Through meticulous facts and myth-busting revisionism, these brutally honest character studies ask viewers whether or not one’s cultural legacy transcends his personal transgressions.
Mining the same uncompromising truths he unveiled in past films like The Armstrong Lie, Alex Gibney aims his fearless camera at a communications titan who forever changed the world’s online landscape even as he struggled with personal relationships and his own pained quest for perfection. Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine was inspired by Gibney’s perplexed reaction to how the public responded to Jobs’ death. Gibney observed that across the globe, tearful owners of IPods, IPads, and Smart Phones congregated by the thousands at vigils outside thousands of Apple stores. Gibney’s film asks why one man would prompt such fanatic adulation, and it only partially succeeds in giving us an answer. But The Man in the Machine is one helluva history lesson. We’re enlightened to Jobs’ quest to create a computer that was more personal than the IBM models he helped to design before helming Apple. Not content with the concept of computers as informal, anonymous machines, Jobs envisioned something that, according to Gibney, felt like “an extension of its users.”
The film’s most effective and moving scene shows a retired upper-tier Apple employee admitting that Jobs’ brutal work demands cost him his wife and children, even as he openly weeps over the sense of extraordinary accomplishment he shared with the intense visionary. It’s a fascinating moment – one that defines Jobs as a creative genius whose drive could simultaneously transform and destroy the lives of his collaborators. Gibney reveals Jobs as less techno-geek than philosopher, a Bob Dylan fan and Zen practitioner who yearned for enlightenment from his Buddhist monk mentors. He could wield his power in cruel ways. Gibney reveals that despite Jobs being an adopted child, he all but abandoned his wife and daughter, agreeing to pay only $500 a month in child support even as his worth soared to over $200 million. He often parked his silver Mercedes in handicapped zones. Gibney claims that unlike Bill Gates, Jobs seldom, if ever, helmed philanthropic programs. “Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine” is an epic documentary exploring the complex humanity of a complicated genius who connected society in unprecedented ways even as he failed to connect with those around him.
Envision an Israeli Ed Wood. Now, picture the notoriously inept director with an equally film-crazy cousin, and you capture the absurd essence of Electric Boogaloo: The Wild Untold Story of Cannon Films. Unspooling faster than a gazelle on cocaine, Electric Boogaloo immortalizes the hilarious, pathetic, and ultimately moving saga of brilliant Schlockmeisters Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, who helmed Cannon from 1979 into the mid-nineties, turning their studio into a kind of low-rent Miramax. Golan was the creative visionary, while the colder, more pragmatic Globus managed Cannon’s business end. The duo was superb at promoting their often Grade-Z product, attending the Cannes Film Festival to sell nonexistent movies (without a script, cast, or director) on the strength of garish posters.
Most of their films were sleazy, low-brow sex comedies and hyper-dumb action films like American Ninja (Charles Bronson and Chuck Norris were two notable Cannon Staples). But they sometimes predicted—and lucratively exploited—a cultural zeitgeist (1984’s hit Breakin’ capitalized on the emerging phenomenon of break dancing). On occasion, they produced a masterpiece, like Andrei Konchalovsky’s Runaway Train, or John Cassavetes’ Love Streams. The tragic final stretch of Electric Boogaloo shows Golan and Globus failing to transcend their indie roots to become players in a bigger, blockbuster ballpark. Superman 4: The Quest for Peace was box-office kryptonite due to the film’s shoddy special effects, and Over the Top saw them paying obscene salaries to major stars (according to several interviewees, Sylvester Stallone was paid up to $15 million to star in the film, which tanked).
It’s a sad descent to behold. However, there’s no doubt that these lovable, outlaw cousins loved cinema. Their enthusiasm makes for a better story than their films could ever tell, and director Mark Hartley tells it with exhaustingly loving flair.
They terrified onlookers by legally packing loaded guns in public. They fried up 20,000 meals a week for inner-city kids during free breakfast programs. They were aggressively harassed by J. Edgar Hoover. Stanley Nelson’s The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution avoids either lionizing or denouncing the Black Panthers, an iconic African American civil rights movement helmed by Huey P. Newton. Surviving members of the organization are interviewed alongside retired LAPD officers, FBI informants and others—all of whom reflect back in great detail on the marches, riots, and stand-offs that defined the Panthers’ turbulent late-‘60s era.
The group’s dramatic high points are all here. After Newton’s arrest on alleged murder charges, the Panthers initiated an impassioned push to acquit their leader… immortalized by a battle cry. “Free Huey” was suddenly emblazoned across banners, buttons, and flags, adopted by sympathizers across the country. Nelson makes us feel caught up in the moment, shuffling around sign-wielding supporters and through street marches as the deafening phrase is chanted from all directions. The film’s most dramatically charged portion involves FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover’s aggressive efforts to dismantle the group. Hoover, who called Newton’s movement “the greatest threat to the internal security of the country,” developed a program designed to take down the Panthers through harassment, internal strife, and the discrediting of its members. The film also documents a brutal 1969 raid on the Black Panthers’ Chicago headquarters in which key member Fred Hampton was killed.
The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution acknowledges the positive intentions of its subjects, but isn’t afraid to show their ugly sides as well. We’re shown Newton’s growing instability after he’s released from prison in 1970. Increasingly involved in the criminal subculture of Oakland, he was murdered by an alleged drug dealer in 1989. Eldridge Cleaver, another member from the Black Panther’s upper echelons, goes similarly over-the-top, instigating a violent assault on police officers before fleeing to Cuba. Due in part to such increasingly volatile behavior, the party formally disbanded in the 1970s.
Through its bulging scrapbook of exhaustive film footage, Nelson has created a solid and enlightening history lesson. But by focusing so much on the bigger picture and not the human details, his movie is less successful at resonating on an emotional level. Leaving the theater, you’ll likely feel well-informed but emotionally underwhelmed.
It was inevitable. One-time Guns ‘n Roses bassist Duff McKagan was destined to be a rock star. His screw-you smirk smacks of defiance. Towering over bandmates at six-foot three, his tangle of straw-blonde locks pouring down over black leather, McKagan resembled a tow-headed stepbrother of the Ramones. It’s So Easy And Other Lies is an uneven rock-doc exploring both McKagan’s harrowing drug addictions and subsequent life as a balanced family man. Based on the musician’s best-selling memoir of the same name, director Christopher Duddy finds a unique way of framing his film. Live footage of McKagan reading passages of his book during a spoken-word concert in Seattle acts as a structural scrapbook, and it’s filled with band photos, concert footage, and interviews. Most striking, however, are the film’s animated passages in which a cartoon image of McKagan is shown meeting bandmates or curled in a fetal position after overdosing on pills. The latter scenario defined McKagan’s early lifestyle—an ongoing cycle of car theft and drug abuse (he admits to smoking pot by the fourth grade, graduating to cocaine by junior high). But transcending everything was music. It’s So Easy offers generous servings of Seattle rock-scene trivia and McKagan’s many formative bands, before delving into his monstrous success with Guns ‘n Roses—the biggest band in the world during the late ‘80s. Ultimately, Duddy documents the bassist’s transformation from zombified junkie into sober husband and father.
There’s some interesting stuff here, especially the way McKagan’s book-reading gig wraps itself around his dynamic collage of memories. But the melding of material is often too obvious: during one of the many passages in which an animated, intoxicated McKagan teeters on the edge of death, “Knocking of Heaven’s Door” plays predictably in the background. Meanwhile, there’s little insight concerning his songwriting process—a talent practiced prolifically in both Guns ‘n Roses and a slew of his successive bands like Velvet Revolver and Loaded. Some details, like an early divorce and a Guns-era stadium riot, seem incomplete, as if key information was snipped out by a stoned editor. In the end, it’s really just a serviceable re-telling of an old story: the hard-living entertainer getting clean and finding a new lease on life. While there’s relief in seeing McKagan rise from the ashes of substance abuse, it’s tough to have too much sympathy for a guy whose chemical misadventures were so gleefully self-imposed.
Compared to Duff McKagan, fellow musician Paco De Lucia makes a decidedly less flamboyant appearance at SIFF. Paco De Lucia: A Journey shows precious little of the brilliant flamenco guitarist’s personal life—a puzzling fact, considering the respectful doc was directed by his son, Francisco Sánchez Varela. Instead, “A Journey” focuses almost entirely on the music. And my, what music! De Lucia, who died two days after the film’s completion, was a top-tier virtuoso, and his playing masterfully balanced technical precision with emotional resonance. Smartly, Sanchez Varela devotes huge chunks of the film to De Lucia’s onstage playing: his music alone acts as a trance-like muse, sure to seduce both knowledgeable followers and viewers unfamiliar with his work.
Paco De Lucia: A Journey isn’t just a one-note mishmash of live footage with no insight into its subject. Like many musicians, De Lucia was a man of few words, often emotionally inaccessible. “I would have been introverted my whole life,” he admits early in the film. “The guitar freed me and brought out my personality.” We’re made witness to the many contradictory traits of an artist. De Lucia was obsessive with the perfection of rhythm, acoustics, and even a precise way of filing of his fingernails before concerts. Paradoxically, he seemed blasé and indifferent to his appearance, narrating much of the film with the unshaven face and scruffy mullet of a transient. The film also shows De Lucia struggling with many conflicts inherent to being a musician. When his playing veered off from classical flamenco styles and into new musical frontiers, purists balked (Andres Segovia disdainfully remarked, “he isn’t a musician, but just has clever fingers”). When his song “Between Two Waters” topped the charts and made millions, De Lucia felt embarrassed and guilty at being more affluent than his peers. The guitarist admits that he would often compose music and be delighted with the final product—before waking up the next morning denouncing the work as “worthless.” As with so many artists, his perfectionist nature became at odds with his happiness.
In conveying how music—so indefinably powerful—can come to define a man’s soul, Paco De Lucia: A Journey is fascinating. Even so, I suspect that non-musicians will find its technical forays boring (The process of guitar improvisation takes up a long stretch). It will be interesting to see whether the film appeals to a wider audience than hardcore fans who rightfully hail De Lucia as a musical legend.
It’s every SIFF attendee’s hope that during his or her film-going forays, there will be that one movie that achieves greatness. Not just a good film (with over 450 features, quality findings are inevitable), but a transcendent one that truly eclipses the others. For me, The Great Alone reached that top slot. And my fond feelings were shared by many: Greg Kohs’ gorgeous, stirring film about Iditarod racer Lance Mackey won the SIFF Golden Space Needle Award for Best Documentary. Kohs constructs his film with wonderful balance: The Great Alone succeeds as a breathtaking adventure film, an intimate character study, and a detailed immersion into Alaska’s uniquely remote terrain and culture.
The Iditarod, we’re informed, is a brutal, 1000-mile dogsled race from Anchorage to Nome. The only man to win the event four consecutive years in a row, Mackey is a fascinating blend of grizzled toughness and personable humor. He claims to understand his sled dogs better than the people in his life, yet he’s a gregarious talker while interacting with fans at an outdoor convention. And he’s resilient enough to survive cancer, singlehandedly build a house deep in the Alaskan woods, and demand that his doctor amputate a frostbitten finger. We’re given raw glimpses of the Iditarod journey, as Mackey comforts his rugged sled dogs with beds of straw and accepts hospitality from desolate communities along the way.
The Great Alone generates considerable emotional power by exploring what fuels Mackey’s drive to win: the complicated relationship with his father, a past Iditarod winner who mentored Mackey in the sport before leaving the family years later, and his touching bond with the dogs that pull him across the ice and snow. Kohs doesn’t sugar-coat his subject’s dark side. Immersed in drugs and serving jail time during his youth, Mackey admits to putting “his parents through hell” before finding his way to personal peace. The director gives us a real feel for the Alaskan way of life: these are tough people navigating a harsh and remote corner of the earth.
Few documentaries achieve that graceful balancing act between intimate character insights and objective, big-picture focus. Kohs weaves them together in a way that’s artful, exciting, and emotionally riveting. Even the most callous dog-hater is guaranteed to get misty-eyed during the film’s beautiful final scene – a quiet, profound image that beautifully wraps up all that has gone before.
Beloved idols. Cantankerous rebels. Reckless spirits. Amongst its hundreds of diverse stories, SIFF 2015 explored and confirmed the messiness of human nature, an eternal skirmish between epic heroism and flawed frailty. MM
For more information on the Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF), visit: www.siff.net.
Photos courtesy of the Seattle International Film Festival.