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Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Doc watching at Cucalorus

Posted by on Wed, Nov 18, 2009 at 3:47 PM

WILMINGTON, NC—After hearing for years about the hip, up-all-night film festival in Wilmington, I finally got to check out Cucalorus for myself this weekend. It’s a cozy affair, taking place mostly in small, intimate venues, and even though it’s developed a national presence in its 15 years, it’s totally unpretentious, with a youthful staff and a laid-back vibe.

The slate of films was nicely varied, with some foreign titles and a few high-profile selections set for theatrical release (including THE MESSENGER, a Woody Harrelson vehicle that opened in New York the same weekend, and PRECIOUS, winner of audience awards at Sundance and Toronto). The main thing to keep in mind at any festival is that no matter how glowing the write-ups, the offerings will be hit-or-miss. The surest way to raise the “hit” quotient, in my experience, is to head for the docs. [Here's Indy culture editor David Fellerath's account of the fest.]

BURMA VJ was there, a three-time award winner at last April’s Full Frame, as was FBI KKK, which screened at Full Frame as a work in progress in 2008. In a weekend of sadly abbreviated filmgoing (owing to some personal business I had to attend to), I did manage to catch a couple of excellent docs, THE GOOD SOLDIER and TRUST US, THIS IS ALL MADE UP.

click to enlarge Jimmy Massey in The Good Soldier
  • Jimmy Massey in The Good Soldier

THE GOOD SOLDIER presents five veterans of American wars, from World War II to Iraq. In intensely personal interviews (interspersed with a great deal of file footage), they describe the experiences that led to their disillusionment with the military. Each for his own reasons, in the end they feel a sense of betrayal. But, to a man, you won’t find a hint of self-pity: It’s not the suffering they went through, so much as the suffering they inflicted, that troubles them most.

THE GOOD SOLDIER is the second feature-length doc by married couple Lexy Lovell and Michael Uys, after 1997’s acclaimed RIDING THE RAILS, about young people who hopped freight trains during the Great Depression. Though the couple lives in Brooklyn, their new film is thick with Tarheels, with three of the veterans hailing from North Carolina. Chief Warrant Officer Perry Parks, a former helicopter pilot who served in Viet Nam, is from Rockingham, and Captain Michael McPhearson, a Gulf War vet who’s now the director of Veterans for Peace, grew up on Fort Bragg and lives in Fayetteville.

Perhaps the most harrowing and incendiary testimony comes from Staff Sergeant Jimmy Massey of Waynesville. He’d already served in the Marines for over a decade when he was sent to Iraq. In 2003, he relates, his company killed a carful of unarmed civilians, and that's when he “lost it” and was discharged from the service with an official diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder.

On rejoining civilian life, he cofounded Iraq Veterans Against the War, wrote a book about his experiences that was published in France and traveled frequently for speaking engagements. In the film, Massey describes his time in the service with a bluntness that’s sometimes shocking. He’s shown standing on the street in a silent one-man protest, holding a sign that reads “I killed innocent civilians for our government.”

Massey’s claims about civilian deaths in Iraq have been disputed by journalists and Marine Corps officials. Digging through published articles and interviews online, it’s hard to tell how much of his story is exaggerated or fabricated, or to what extent the military and members of the press have engaged in an orchestrated smear campaign.

In any event, the cumulative weight of the five soldiers’ testimony makes THE GOOD SOLDIER a disturbing, powerful film. Perhaps the most memorable line comes from Vietnam veteran Will Williams, who remarks that talk of the “greatest generation” is premature, that the greatest generation will be the one that finally does away with war altogether. The greatest generation, he says hopefully, is yet to come.

click to enlarge David Pasquesi and TJ Jagodowski in Trust Us: This Is All Made Up
  • David Pasquesi and TJ Jagodowski in Trust Us: This Is All Made Up

I spent a more lighthearted hour in thrall of T.J. Jagodowski and David Pasquesi, veteran Chicago improv performers profiled in TRUST US, THIS IS ALL MADE UP. TJ & Dave, as they bill their act, are what you'd call improvisers’ improvisers: their ongoing drop-in shows at the Barrow Street Theater in lower Manhattan are a sort of master class for the New York improv scene.

I’ve been fortunate to catch their act there, at iO Theater (formerly ImprovOlympic) in Chicago, and once at ComedyWorx in Raleigh. That last show, in the summer of 2006, was a rare chance to see the duo outside of their usual environs. It was a night the few Triangle improv fans fortunate enough to get tickets still cherish.

The title of the film is taken from the phrase Jagodowski utters to the audience just before the start of each performance. There’s a lot of ritual surrounding the show: Director Alex Karpovsky follows TJ & Dave on the day of the show, trolling the fecund streets of New York, separately and together, gathering raw material in the form of close observations of people and things. The song “Commie Drives a Nova” by Ike Reilly blares over the loudspeakers each time the duo hits the stage, and Jagodowski takes a long look at the crowd, hands tented over his eyes to block the stage lights. After he invokes the titular disclaimer, though, ritual falls away, and what follows is never the same from one night to the next.

In their shows, T.J. and Dave construct an elaborate world populated by up to half a dozen different characters. They weave in and out of scenes, discarding and returning to themes and characters as they see fit. Perhaps most remarkably, they make it look easy, belying the years of training and practice they’ve put in to make stuff up as believably as they do.

It’s hard to convey the excitement of long-form improv on film, as there’s something about being present at the creation that doesn’t entirely come across in recordings. Karpovsky filmed five different shows at Barrow Street, choosing one for TRUST US. He had a bunch of cameras shooting from many angles, and the typically bravura performance comes across well.

Karpovsky gives the nearly one-hour performance center stage, showing it in its entirety. The pre- and post-show footage is informed by fascinating bits of voiceover in which Jagodowski and Pasquesi talk about their approach to their craft. "There's nothing worked out about it beforehand," Jagodowski says. "We don't know anything. Until we look at each other, and then we start to know everything."

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