The easiest way to open a full day of movie going is to watch an easy going film of a master artist just doing their thing. Back in 2012, I started a weekend day with Thunder Soul, an uplifting documentary about a high school soul band from 1970s Texas. The documentary was a pleasant experience, watching some masterful youth musicians doing their thing. It sets your day off in a good mood and you never know where the rest of the day will head.
This year, I started my third Saturday with the concert film The Primary Instinct, David Chen’s concert film of Stephen Tobolowsky doing his storytelling thing one night at the Moore Theater in Seattle. The cinematic qualities of The Primary Instinct are negligible. Outside of the static medium close-up bookends, the main part of the film is just Stephen with a chair, a table, and a glass of water on stage in front of an audience. Because Stephen is a storyteller, he doesn’t perform much in the range of physical embellishment (hand motions, visual gags, etc). His face further embellishes the emotions of his words. The Primary Instinct doesn’t need to be a film any more than your average stand-up comedy special needs to be filmed.
That being said, The Primary Instinct is Stephen Tobolowsky doing his finest storytelling. He weaves a web of stories from various points of his life, ranging from his first pangs of love to the birth of his son to the death of his mother. He touches on memory, emotion, heartache, drugs, sex, parties, love, symbols, work, and many of the elements that make up humanity. All of his stories are told in a touching, emotionally solid way, with one point pinging off another point pinging off another point until he has made up a whole web of life based on a handful of stories told in an hour. If the format of the show is arguable (would it be just as good as an album or a podcast? Probably), the content within isn’t. This is what art is and should be. Tobolowsky makes universal points based on his own primal urges, and even if he mixes up the personal with the universal from time to time, you can’t fault him for it because the emotions and intent are solid and pure. To say I enjoyed being in an audience listening to Tobolowsky, even on film, is an understatement.
In another genius SIFF guest star, both director David Chen and Stephen Tobolowsky were present at both screenings, following the show up with a further Q&A. Even though Chen would interject himself a couple times, it was Tobolowsky’s show, as it should be. After all, it is his life and his stories that the audience was here to listen to. Stephen also came out into the audience after the Q&A and met with the even bigger fans.
Chad Garcia’s documentary The Russian Woodpecker resembles The Primary Instinct in a lot of ways. Garcia followed around Russian artist Fedor Alexandrovich to investigate a massive radar array, named Kuga, built very near the site of Chernobyl. Fedor had been living in Pripyet when the meltdown happened, and has radiation left in his bones from when he was exposed as a child. Unsatisfied with the legal fallout of the Chernobyl disaster, Fedor investigates the conspiracy that Chernobyl may have been an insider job from Soviet Russia. As they’re making the documentary, the President of Ukraine is a pro-Russia leader, protests break out, and Russia invades.
The Russian Woodpecker might as well be Conspiracy Theory: Real Life, as records about both Chernobyl and Kuga have been kept hidden, classified, or destroyed. Because Chad Garcia is an American, old timey Russian officials clam up on camera. Police follow Fedor around. It gets hairy, and Fedor’s assumptions are given credence by either being denied too vigorously or given tacit agreement. Garcia and Fedor work hard to connect all of the dots they can to point the Chernobyl disaster to a purposeful decision by a single high-ranking man in the Soviet government. Meanwhile, Kuga is made out to be a source for the Russian Woodpecker, a low-frequency signal jammer and information collector intended to bounce around the ionosphere and disrupt American communication.
Looked at one way, The Russian Woodpecker holds no water. Looked at another way, it’s a vast conspiracy theory. Looked at another way, Fedor has his finger on the pulse of the government, regardless of whether his interpretation is right or wrong. Or, maybe he’s just crazy. The net of stories and conspiracies that Chad and Fedor uncover make the semblance of a net, but they don’t necessarily have a core. That’s the biggest fault of The Russian Woodpecker: ultimately it might be completely hollow.
Which leads to the most WTF film of the festival to date: The Blue Hour. It’s a gay movie from Thailand about the coming of age of a cute boy named Tam. When we first meet Tam, he’s lying on the ground, his mouth bloodied and face bruised. He proceeds to clean himself up for a secret date with Phum in an abandoned community pool that has since gone moldy and damp. Perhaps it isn’t the perfect place for making out and giving secret handjobs, but the type of hidden location that many a gay man of certain ages can probably remember with equal amounts of familiarity and fondness. After satisfaction is achieved, they decide to go swimming in the icky water, and Phum teaches Tam his secret to dealing with life: exhaling all his air, submerging underwater, and looking up at the sky.
Yadda yadda yadda, this is the first half hour of the film and the audience is still thinking that The Blue Hour is a typical movie about gay teenagers and bullying. I mean, besides that it takes like 30 minutes to get a handful of scenes out of the way – The Blue Hour is probably one of the few movies paced slower than Barry Lyndon – it’s a usual movie about gay teenagers discovering themselves complete with gay-requisite T&A. But, right after Tam submerges, the movie starts going sideways.
The weirdness is subtle at first; Phum takes Tam to a garbage dump to spend the night among the trash. They make out after finding a dead body amongst the litter. Tam owes money to people, has been caught stealing Buddha pictures, has some sort of fever, and has to take medicine. Before long, we’re in a David Lynch knockoff of non-linear schizophrenic storytelling involving multiple murders, pool spirits that appear as mold people, and assassination plots. As Phum puts it so succinctly, “Strange.”
By the end of the film, some people were laughing, others chuckling, others horrified, and almost all of us were confused. Coming out of the film, the universal reaction was either a jaw drop or a wide eyed head tilt. The film is so molasses slow and incomprehensible that it borders torture, but the complete out-of-left-field bonkersness of it all truly makes The Blue Hour kind of sublime. I have a theory that the film is actually a gay Mulholland Drive involving amnesia and a broken timeline, but it wouldn’t hold up in court anymore than any other reading of the film would. Truly amazing and/or awful in a new and astonishing way.
Of course, the only way to cap off a day of such random movies is Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films, a documentary about Golan-Globus and their rise to power in Hollywood on the back of fast-paced down and dirty cheap filmmaking. Menanhem Golan and Yoram Globus were two Israeli cousins who were intent on making films. The first film they made was Lemon Popsicle, a teenage sex comedy that would later be remade in America as The Last American Virgin. Golan and Globus would eventually buy a low-rent studio, Cannon Films, and use it to make a variety of cheap genre films that would achieve cult status. From The Apple to Death Wish 2-5 to Missing in Action to Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, Cannon was known for making schlock of the schlockiest caliber. On occasion it would stick, as was the case for Breakin’, but even their bids for respectability – Jean-Luc Godard’s King Lear, Zefferelli’s Otello – were written off as failures.
Electric Boogaloo is a fast-paced romp through Cannon’s catalog, with interviews from the directors and some of the stars who worked under Cannon’s roster. Pointedly missing are Golan and Globus themselves, who, after being approached for this film, financed their own documentary, The Go-Go Boys, and released it ahead of Electric Boogaloo. Missing from both docs are Norris, Bronson, and Stallone.
Director Mark Hartley assembles a wide range of Cannon films and stars, and keeps Electric Boogaloo chugging at a nice pace. He pulls few punches, even as he is glorifying the factory filmmaking process that Golan and Globus were perfecting until they were sidetracked by their own expansions. Some surprise information comes out in the film, such as their presence at Cannes and purchase of theater chains, but it’s otherwise a lot of information set in a glossy slick package. The various and numerous subjects concoct a broad story of Cannon through their own little vignettes, creating an image of a studio you suspected was run on the fly. It’s a great place to start before a deeper dive into American genre.
Next Entry: Sex, death, and a lot of white people.