Saturday, April 8, 2017

Fight for Your Right to Post

Don't let anyone tell you it's the worst month of the year

This year's James River Film Festival will be the one remembered as the year of the wind. If I thought yesterday's gusts had moved on, I was sorely mistaken, as I discovered walking to the library for this afternoon's films.

And it's not just me getting blown around because the curator of last night's films never made it to Richmond at all because of his flight being canceled. And Guy Maddin, the Canadian director whose many films are screening this weekend, will be arriving on a later plane than scheduled because of windy weather.

But neither rain nor snow nor wind of afternoon would have kept me from today's screening of films devoted to protest and films that bore witness to history all the while questioning it. Most of the crowd who joined me were also of a certain age, including one filmmaker whom I overheard telling his seatmate, "I'm from a steamboat town...called Cincinnati."

I'm from a swamp town...called Washington, D.C. Just doesn't have the same ring, does it?

As it turned out, I'd already seen Gordon Ball's "Mexican Jail Footage" shot in 1968, because Ball himself had been at the Firehouse Theater in 2012 when his book about how beat poet Allen Ginsberg had hired him to run his farm in upstate New York.

Still, it was a kick to see Ball and his lean-as-jaguars (no high fructose corn syrup) buddies in a Mexican jail (being held without charges) and, in typical 1968 style, making the most of their time to the best of their capabilities. Hatha yoga sessions, smoking pot (one handful acquired from the jailer), an outing to a Chinese restaurant by said jailer (as well as a whorehouse), being taken to a fancy hotel for dinner by a friend's mother and, obviously, shooting footage on film smuggled in.

Clearly jails were held to different standards in the '60s, although it wasn't all fun and games, either. They had to pay local kids to go out and buy them food during their stay, meaning they quickly ran through their money and Ball had to sell his transistor radio to be able to eat. Luckily, he didn't sell the movie camera.

"Confrontation at Kent State" had been made in 1970 collectively by some faculty and students on Kent State's campus and featured interviews with students who'd been part of the mayhem, but also with townspeople about what had gone down.

Locals blamed everyone from the students to the governor to the school's administration to paid agitators for the deaths of four college students by National Guardsmen. It was appalling how many smug white townspeople said the students got exactly what they deserved.

Death for protesting? Um, I don't think so.

I don't know about the rest of the audience of a certain age, but I really knew nothing about the aftermath of the shootings: the tanks on campus, armed guards on corners, helicopters overhead rattling houses. Or even that students had burned a building in frustration after the deaths.

In the saddest possible way, it ended with the father of one of the victims reading a poem about his daughter.

"Buffalo Creek Revisited" about a West Virginia mining disaster caused by a coal waste dam collapsing and flooding nearby communities and killing 120 people, looked at the situation a decade later and things hadn't improved much.

Not just because the coal company didn't care but also because the land where people's houses had previously been located before being washed away had since been earmarked for a super-highway so they had nothing to go back to.

The final short had a local angle because the VCU film professor who introduced today's films was also the fresh-faced manager of the Biograph in a skinny tie being interviewed onscreen circa 1985. "Biograph Theater Handbill Rally" was a compilation of the three local newscasts reporting on the rally for freedom of speech issues after the city outlawed posting fliers on poles.

The idea was brilliant: place a pole on Biograph property and allow people to post on it, whether a copy of the Constitution, a lost pet flier or a music show, while gathering signatures for a petition to present the city to change the ordinance.

Meanwhile, behind him in the shots was the Biograph's marquee, clearly showing that "Stop Making Sense" was screening. Having to rally for the right to post public notices clearly demonstrates that sense was no longer being made in Richmond. I didn't get here until '86, but that's about the state I found it in when I got here.

As I recall anyway and I'm pretty good at recalling.

There was no recalling to do about poet Larry Levis because I'd never met him and he'd died of a cocaine overdose heart attack in 1996, except that I had heard his name mentioned at poetry readings for years as part of VCU's literary legacy.

JRFF was screening  at the Visual Arts Center tonight "A Late Style of Fire: Larry Levis, American Poet," a film I was especially eager to see for its local connections. A familiar poet sat down in the same row where I'd staked territory, so I did the only sensible thing and wished him happy poetry month.

Shaking his head, he joked, "It's the worst month of the year!" No, just the least celebrated and, worst of all, without cake.

The film provided a fascinating look at Levis' life, from growing up on a grape farm in California - where he'd concluded by his teen years that his choices were being a farmer or a poet - to the many wives and women he attracted, many of whom spoke lovingly about him on camera years after he'd let them down. Best of all, Levis' poems were read as part of the film, so the audience could get some sense of his words.

This was a man who could write a poem called, "Perfection of Solitude," yet he was also, as someone pointed out, a poet who kept a 12-gauge shotgun by the door, a rather un-poetic habit.

I especially enjoyed the inter-cut scenes of a reading he'd done in 1985, beer bottle at hand, looking very much the 40ish artistic/academic type who was as disarming reading to an audience as charming a woman. Ultimately, Levis believed he had to live self-destructively in order to create his best possible work so he was dead at 49 in Church Hill.

Ah, the siren song and simultaneous curse of self-medicating. Don't get me started.

The evening was capped off with a walk to Gallery 5 for their 12th anniversary celebration, a soiree with fire performers outside (whom I watched for 20 minutes standing outside in line waiting to get in), a burlesque show followed by Prabir's band and the Trillions inside and a multi-artist art show upstairs that included a giant kaleidoscope, a large sculptural piece with small doors of various materials which opened to show nude selfies sent to the artist (but not in a lustful way, the artistic statement assured us) and paintings, collages and drawings.

I've been in Jackson Ward for nearly 11 years, so Gallery 5 has me beat by one year, and at only 4 blocks from home, ranks as hands-down closest music venue for yours truly. In fact, when I finally got to the front of the line to get in, the door guy saw it was me and apologized that I'd had to wait in line given my frequent attendance cred.

No big deal. All that line time allowed for some fabulous eavesdropping from the lacrosse/soccer-playing female trio in front of me who could recall every game they'd played to the symphony musicians behind me who admitted they'd never been anywhere in J-Ward other than Gallery 5. Anywhere.

I don't have time to educate the entire population, people.

As it is, I barely have time to do all the things worth doing around here...or find people to do them with. The perfection of solitude is a work in progress.

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